It’s a state championship or bust for the Althoff Crusaders.
Althoff, which finished second in the Class 3A state tournament last March, is again taking aim at the top trophy and have all the talent to make it happen.
“Last year, we were upset,” Crusaders senior Brendon Gooch said of losing 67-63 to Westchester St. Joseph in the championship game. “We felt like we should have won it, but we didn’t. So we’re hungry. We’ve lost one game with our full team. Obviously, we want to get state. (Friday) was a tuneup, I guess, for Tuesday and Friday.”
And what a tuneup it was. Althoff dismantled Mount Vernon 103-69 in the South Seven Conference finale for both teams, drilling a season-high 18 3-pointers.
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Last year, we were upset. We felt like we should have won it, but we didn’t. So we’re hungry.
Althoff senior Brendon Gooch on the Crusaders’ goal to win the Class 3A state title
Damage came from everywhere. Gooch had 21 points and three 3-pointers and seniors Keenen Young and Tarkus Ferguson each scored 18 points and combined for seven 3-pointers.
Junior Jordan Goodwin, Althoff’s leading scorer at 17 points per game, had 15 points and one 3-pointer and junior Marvin Bateman, the top sixth man in the metro-east, had 14 points and four 3-pointers.
Mount Vernon coach Doug Creel has seen a lot of basketball over the years would have a difficult time being convinced by anyone that the Crusaders aren’t the real deal.
“They can all go make plays and they’re unselfish,” Creel said. “They’ve got so many good players that (it seems) they would be a little more selfish. But they’re very good at sharing the ball, passing it around the basket. You’ve got to take your hat off to them. They’re good enough to win it all. They make you play fast.”
Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom said Althoff is in a league of its own. The Crusaders defeated Sandstrom’s Eagles 93-50 on Jan. 21 in the Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East.
“They’re the best team, regardless of class,” Sandstrom said. “They are the best team I’ve seen with my eyes in all my years of playing and coaching in high school basketball. I even think they’re better than the East St. Louis teams with Darius Miles.”
Althoff (25-2), seeded No. 1 in the Triad Regional, will begin its trek to Peoria at 7 p.m. Tuesday against No. 7 Civic Memorial (17-11) or No. 8 Mascoutah (7-21), which will meet in the first round at 6 p.m. Monday.
No. 6 Jerseyville (14-14) will face No. 9 Triad (10-17) at 7:30 p.m. Monday, with the winner taking on No. 4 Highland (16-12) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The title game is at 7 p.m. Friday.
Althoff coach Greg Leib said his team is ready to begin the postseason.
“This is what it’s all about. You build to this moment,” Leib said Friday. “We’ll just come out and try to sustain that effort or mimic that effort, and improve upon it. There’s a lot of areas for us to get better at.
“Overall, the team approach and the unselfish play was as good as we’ve had all year. If they continue with that, they’re going to be real happy with who they are.”
Althoff will be targeted by opponents in the playoffs. But it’s no different than what the Crusaders have experienced in the regular season. Dreams of upsetting the top-ranked team in Class 3A are quickly dashed once the Crusaders unleash their fury.
“We’re going to get that attention,” Leib said. “We realize that and you’ve got to play through it. You can’t have any lapses or letdowns.”
Leib acknowledged that his players have had Saturday, March 19, the final day of the state tournament, “circled on their calendars for quite a while.”
“But it’s one game at a time,” Leib said. “In the playoffs, if you lose, you go home and get the uniform tub out. But you can’t play scared, you can’t play tentative. You’ve just got to go out and play and see what happens. You do what you do as a team.”
Leib doesn’t believe the Crusaders have peaked.
“There’s little things you can always shape up,” he said. “Help-side defense (is one). We got lost a couple of times there. Not maybe cutting as crisply as we need to, with as much direction. Little things like that.”
Leib pointed out that many of his players haven’t had a break since practice for football season began Aug. 10. Those include Goodwin, Young, Ferguson junior C.J. Coldon and a handful of others.
The football players were not yet with the team when Althoff suffered its first loss of the season, a 66-51 decision to Highland on Nov. 24. The Crusaders’ only other loss came to nationally ranked Chaminade in the Highland Shootout on Jan. 9.
“It’s been a long year,” Leib said. “Shoot, they’ve had no breaks since Aug. 10 when football started. They’ve done a really good job of playing hungry. We’ll keep playing hard and see what happens.”
The host Eagles (20-6) are seeded second and are the favorites to win in a field that also includes 10th-seeded Waterloo, 11th-seeded Freeburg, third-seeded Mater Dei and fifth-seeded Cahokia.
Waterloo (7-21) will meet Freeburg (9-19) at 7 p.m. Monday, with Columbia facing the winner of that game at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Mater Dei (20-7) will play Cahokia (14-15) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The championship game will be at 7 p.m. Friday.
Columbia is 13-0 at home and shared the Cahokia Conference championship with Central.
“We’ve had an absolute great season,” Sandstrom said. “We have an opportunity to (win the regional) on our home court, and we haven’t lost at home yet. We feel like we’re playing well right now and we’re guarding well. We understand we have some obstacles ahead of us, but our kids are confident right now.”
Seniors Jonathan Holmes (14.6 points per game, 42 3-pointers) and Korbin Farmer (12.1 points, 7.8 rebounds) lead the Eagles.