Junior Blackcats State Champions Special Section
With less than a minute and half on the clock and up by only one point against Sesser in the first round of the 2014 SIJHSAA Boys Class M State tournament held at Rend Lake College, Goreville Junior High School basketball coach Eric Messmer’s players took hold of his belt and pulled him back into the team’s box.
A final Goreville free throw would put the Junior Blackcats up two points over Sesser and send them to the semi-finals where they would later eliminate Fairfield 44-36.
Coach Messmer and his team entered the tournament looking to win the first round and knowing that everything else would be “gravy.” Messmer just had to stay within the box and avoid a penalty so assistant coach JR Russell put the bench on it.
“Occasionally I would go a little bit too far to the left and they’d tug on me a little bit,” Messmer said of his players. “It was kind of fun; I didn’t get too far out of the box.”
Getting out of the box came two games later as the team would win the school’s first ever state championship for junior high school basketball after having made it to the tournament ten years in a row. The team, made up largely of players who previously won the school’s first ever state title in baseball, broke the box, broke the barrier and entered into the school’s history book leaving future teams a challenge not easily matched.
“You always want to win that first round at state, and I’ve always said, it’s kind of gravy after that,” Messmer said. “The kids want to win, yes, you want to win the title every year, but, everything after that first round is just nice.
“But the kids did a great job and we knew we were going to have something special, I thought, both in baseball and basketball.”
Messmer said it is easy to get caught up in the moment and lose focus, but the team held on through the entire tournament and his faith in their performance was not lost on the last round as they claimed the title in a 59-54 victory over Cairo.
The Jr. Blackcats finished the season with a near-perfect record of 26-1 with their only loss coming from a 76-59 loss to Meridian in early December. The Junior Blackcats came back to avenge that loss with a 76-74 overtime victory against Meridian to claim the Southern Illini Conference Tournament championship title and kept up the wins from there on.
“For the Cairo game, I really just reacted and talked to the kids and they talked to me and I never really thought we were going to lose the game,” Messmer said. “Even the Fairfield game or when we played Sesser, it was just one of those things, I didn’t think we were going to lose. And, I think the kids had enough confidence in themselves that even though they made some mistakes, they overcame those mistakes and moved on.”
Messmer said the first round had several players on edge after arriving in the same position the previous year and losing by one point.
“This year, I think they were tense and nervous and we came out winning by [only] two points, so that was a lot of relief,” Messmer said of the first round at state.
The group of young athletes has high expectations for their future as Messmer said he expects to see them make trips to state as juniors and seniors in both baseball and basketball.
“I think this group; I think they plan on doing big things in high school also,” Messmer said. “I think as a group, you put this group of eighth graders with the freshmen that we have from this past year, I think when they’re juniors and seniors there are a lot of high expectations … But, I think they have high expectations for themselves and I think they’re going to reach those too.”
Coach Messmer credits the athletic talent available to Goreville teams and praised the community for its continued support. He said it is hard to determine what next year looks like, adding he is encouraged by his seventh graders and looks forward to the challenges ahead.
“Goreville athletics has always been pretty successful and for me as a coach,” Messmer said. “You enjoy the moment, you enjoy the kids; I’ve had a lot of good teams; I’ve been coaching 22 years and have had very few teams that did not win. That’s just because the kids are good kids and I’ve always looked at it as a team effort.”