Toppers Face Tough Tests In 2018-19

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Evaluations always seem simple, but never are. As a teacher, I was often nervous at evaluation time, not because I was unsure of myself but because I was always unsure about the perspective of the evaluator. I hoped to be judged on two items–how well I knew the English and how effectively I could transfer my knowledge to the students in front of me. I have yet to meet a school administrator who knew as much about the language and how I should teach it as I know it, and I didn't want to be subjected to a checklist of more meaningless items, especially not "loyal to the administrator."

However, when it's time to evaluate a team's performance, I tend to be subjective rather than objective.  I find objective standards hard to use. Should a team (and coaches are part of the teams) be judged as good if they win 50 percent of their contests? What if they are one game under .500? How important are wins and losses?

How about quality of competition? If an athletic director schedules weaker opponents (smaller schools, usually), then wins are easier to obtain, but team improvement typically is slower.

For me, resiliency is important. How well do teammates adjust to injuries? Does the next man-up philosophy rule? How well do the teams bounce back from losses, not only drubbings by obviously superior teams, but close losses to teams they should have whipped?

If it's a basketball team, how patient are they to find shots that will go in, rather than crossing the midpoint line to let a three fly into a tuba in the band room?

How well do they play team defense, helping off non-shooters and shutting down the opponents' primary threats?

Do they like each other, support each other in defeat, as well as victory?

Using these criteria, I judge this 2018-2019 boys squad a success. They won 17 games, finishing above .500 for the third consecutive year. Had the 2015-2016 teams not finished at 13-16, it would have been six consecutive years that the program was over .500. The last time the Topper boys were above .500 in three consecutive years was in 1971-72 (20-6) and 1972-73 (16-9) under the guidance of Stan Horst and 1973-74, when Hillsboro was 15-12 as Elmer Plew was in charge for one year. Bill Connor's teams were 22-6, 17-11, 19-9, and 23-6 in the last four years of his tenure, 1953 through 1957.

I'm sure parents, the players and the coaches had high expectations entering the season, but objective people had reason to doubt. The probably best on-ball defender, Kaden Lemon, had a football injury that meant he wouldn't play his senior season. The big man was 6'4" Jordan Gregg, an outstanding defensive end on the football field but with a basketball-style more typical of post players of five decades ago; the candidate to be the power forward was a 6'1" junior, Nic Ondrey, who depended on athleticism to find the hoop and to secure rebounds; the other two seniors, Landon Carroll and Keaton Pruett, had good moments as juniors but limited varsity experience; and the point guard was sophomore Jace Tuetken, who began with no varsity experience. Gone were guards Drake Paden, Kaden White, defensive stopper Alex Schreiber, and leading rebounder Peyton Tester. Combined, the returning players had scored 453 points = 16 points a game. The first two off the bench were to be an untested sophomore, Jude Bertolino, and an even more untested freshman, Gavin Matoush. I thought it would take until February for them to jell.

Then they won third place in the early season Kaskaskian Classic, in the process defeating Freeburg and Okawville, while losing to Woodlawn in double-overtime. Traditionally, Hillsboro struggles in Carlyle, where the tournament was held.

Too, the Toppers were second in Carlinville's Holiday Classic, losing to Calhoun (two good bigs, one tremendous guard) after Ondrey was lost for the season early in the first quarter of the championship game. The Toppers survived that injury to finish third at the Litchfield Invitational, again the highest finish there since 1999.

The losses came primarily to teams with close to or more than 20 wins.  Shelbyville, Metro-East in the Terry Todt Shootout––a loss revenged in Litchfield; Greenville (also revenged later); Monticello; North Mac and Auburn in their gyms; Nokomis (twice); at Vandalia, at Litchfield; and to Trenton Wesclin in the Regional, where all of the seniors had nagging injuries but played anyway.

A few of those losses could have been wins had the Toppers had more depth or fewer injuries, but I'll never know. I was grateful to have been a small part of their journey; one of my fondest memories of 2018-2019 will be the rousing acappella rendition of "Sweet Caroline" the players and cheerleaders belted out on the bus trip back from the win in Piasa.

They liked each other, which makes it easier to like them. I feel it was a good season, both objectively and subjectively.

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