As the child of two former Illinois State University athletic standouts, it’s not surprising that E.J. Liddell worked his way up to becoming a starting receiver on the Belleville West varsity football team as a freshman.
Liddell’s father, Eric Liddell, was an all-state and all-area offensive tackle at Assumption High in East St. Louis and a four-year starter at tackle for Illinois State. Michelle Liddell, E.J.’s mother, was a volleyball standout at ISU who was fifth in the nation in hitting percentage as a junior and ranks among the school’s all-time leaders in blocks.
However, what has taken place on the basketball court shows just how advanced the 6-foot-6 freshman forward is - and the bright athletic future on the horizon.
“I’ve never had a kid walk in from Day 1 and start varsity,” West coach Joe Muniz said of Liddell, one only two freshmen to play extensively on the varsity in his 12 seasons.
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That says a lot, and that’s exactly what happened with Liddell. He starred at Signal Hill Grade School, then took the court for a Belleville West summer tournament game and promptly convinced Muniz he should be a varsity starter.
I’ve never had a kid walk in from Day 1 and start varsity.
Belleville West coach Joe Muniz on freshman E.J. Liddell
Junior center Tyler Dancy had to miss the game with an injury, basically leaving Liddell as the primary inside presence.
“Here you’ve got this kid that’s 14 years old going against varsity competition and he’s wanting the ball, demanding the ball,” Muniz said. “It kind of surprised me and from that day he’s been the real deal.
“I remember (former West tennis coach and basketball official) Bob Keefe telling me about him in fifth grade and how good this kid was. We kind of followed his progress and he came to our camps, so we knew we were getting a pretty good player. I didn’t expect him to walk in and start Day 1 — and I didn’t expect him to be doing what he’s doing this year. I thought we’d see this next year.”
Instead, what Muniz and the Maroons have seen is Liddell averaging 17.9 points and six rebounds a game. They’ve seen him score 32 points against Belleville East, 30 against Mater Dei and 29 against East St. Louis, excelling as a freshman in the toughest basketball conference south of Chicago.
He’s had seven games with 20 or more points.
My teammates told me just do your thing and good things will happen.
“I was kind of nervous because of the atmosphere in my first game,” said Liddell, recalling his team-leading 19-point effort in a season-opening win over Ladue (Mo.). “It was kind of crazy. My teammates told me just do your thing and good things will happen.”
The 6-foot-7 Dancy also played on the varsity as a freshman, but Liddell was an immediate starter whose impact isn’t that far away from recent freshman seasons for players such as Althoff junior Jordan Goodwin and Okawville junior Noah Frederking.
Like those two players, Liddell also plays summer basketball for the elite St. Louis Eagles AAU squad.
“Tyler was in the same boat (E.J.) was two years ago, starting as a freshman,” Muniz said. “They get along really well and that’s eased his progress in my opinion. I think they both know they need each other for our team success.”
While there has been some team success, it hasn’t been overly consistent. The Maroons are 11-13 overall and 5-7 in the conference, but brighter days are approaching.
“I just wanted to come in and be a big factor in our team,” Liddell said. “I’m happy I have Tyler with me because he helps me a lot in practice on what to do and what not to do. He knows what it takes to be good.”
Where did all this scoring come from?
“I got very excited when I started playing,” Liddell said. “When I get on the court it gives me a lot of energy to do what I’ve been taught in training.”
Another early indicator of success for Liddell was scoring 22 points in a memorable matchup against Vianney star Carte’Are Gordon, one of the nation’s top sophomore prospects.
West lost the game, but not because of anything done by Liddell.
“I wanted to go in and people show what I could do against one of the greatest players in the nation in the sophomore class,” Liddell said of a game Muniz called his best this season and one the Maroons played without the injured Dancy.
“He took on the big sophomore at Vianney who’s a top-20 kid in the country (Gordon),” Muniz said. “He got him fouled out of the game and he absolutely took it to him that game. There’s been times during the season where I had to remember myself that he’s a freshman.
“He’s not afraid to accept any challenge, so we just kept putting more and more on his plate and he’s accepted it.”
Liddell has remarkable poise and confidence for such a young player.
“Coach Muniz told me this was going to be a very long season and I’ve got to keep my composure, not get a big head about 30-point games or 25-point games,” Liddell explained. “I’ve got to go out there and play my hardest every night.”
Eric Liddell said it wasn’t always that easy for his son growing up.
“He was big and goofy, always fell all the time growing up,” Eric Liddell said. “He wasn’t like he is now, no. He’s making an impact on us now. I knew that he could play ball but he’s having fun and that’s the whole key.”
That and perhaps the 32-inch vertical jump once owned by his mother.
“They say she’s a better athlete than I am,” Eric Liddell said. “She helped put ISU volleyball on the map when they reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.”
Liddell is already showing signs of more growth, working his way into becoming more of a perimeter player at times and tossing in a few 3-pointers.
“He was more around the basket earlier this season,” Muniz said. “He’d shoot an occasional three here or there, but as the season’s progressed he’s developed his game to the point where he’s our best 3-point shooter and shooting with confidence.
“He’s starting to learn how to take people off the dribble and he’s still scoring around the basket.”
Big scoring nights are fine, but Liddell has his eyes on the bottom line. Finding more ways to win.
“This is a team sport, it’s not just about me,” he said. “I’m trying to get a win for the team and improve our record.”
Attention-grabbing Mater Dei win
While Mater Dei moved up Class 3A this season, beating 1A second-ranked Okawville 61-47 on Friday in Breese did a lot for the Knights’ confidence.
Especially since they had lost 59-49 to the same Rockets team during the Mater Dei Christmas Tournament.
“It was a big night, Senior Night,” Mater Dei senior guard Butchie Timmermann said. “We dropped one to the them in the holiday tournament and we didn’t really play very well. That’s our tournament, so it’s kind of a big deal and it’s huge to get one back here.
“It gives us a chance to get some momentum going into the regional.”
It has been quite a season for the area’s top 3-point shooters and Roxana High senior and Lincoln Land College commit Trace Gentry continues to lead the way with an even 100 3-pointers.
Gentry averages 3.15 3-pointers per game to lead the entire St. Louis region, but not far behind are Edwardsville junior Oliver Stephen (79 threes, 3.16 per game) and Marissa junior Kyle Smith (76 threes, 3.04 per game).
Belleville News-Democrat Boys Basketball Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records through Sunday:
Large school rankings (Class 3A-4A)
East St. Louis
Also receiving votes: Granite City (13-12), Belleville West (11-13), Mater Dei (19-7), Cahokia (13-14), Columbia (19-6), Highland (15-12), Collinsville (9-17)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-2A)
Also receiving votes: Wesclin (13-14), Roxana (19-10), Carlyle (14-16)