Photo by Bill Roseberry
The Alton boys’ basketball team poses with their Class 4A Alton Regional title March 4 at AHS. The Redbirds finished 16-11 on the season and advanced to the 4A Collinsville Sectional championship game.
Alton Redbird boys’ basketball is building its program.
The Birds just completed their second consecutive season playing in a sectional finale, something fourth-year head coach Eric Smith expects to be a trend, not an aberration.
“It’s two years that we’ve made it to this game and there are a lot of little kids from Alton sitting up there the last two years watching Alton play in this game,” said Smith, who is 78-40 during his time at AHS. “You see a program like Edwardsville that has won so many regionals and there is an expectation that you’re going to play in a sectional. We told our guys that they did their part to make sure those little kids understand that this is what we expect. We don’t expect to compete for a regional; we expect to win a regional and go play in a sectional final and give ourselves an opportunity to play in one game to go to the state tournament.”
Unfortunately, the Redbirds came up a little short March 11, falling to East Moline United 50-48 in the Class 4A Collinsville Sectional finals at Vergil Fletcher Gymnasium inside Collinsville High, ending their season at 16-11. They were 9-5 in the Southwestern Conference, finishing second to Edwardsville.
Alton owned a 43-35 advantage with 6 minutes to go in the game, but United charged on a 9-0 scoring spree to grab a 44-43 edge and held on.
AHS junior Maurice Edwards heaved a long 3-pointer right before the buzzer, but it didn’t fall like so many of his other shots had in the postseason.
Edwards scored the game-winner at the buzzer of a 46-45 victory over Chatham Glenwood to open the 4A Alton Regional. He then punched home a game-high 24 vs. Quincy in the regional final and had a team-high 18 against Edwardsville in the sectional semifinals. He led the Birds in scoring for the season.
“He’s been really gauged in what’s going on; he’s made play after play for us for four games,” Smith said. “He’s done a heck of a job.”
But it was more than just the basketball play that forged the Redbird bond on the court in the playoffs. There was a new sense of leadership and direction that steered the success.
“I think for us as a team that was a big turnaround,” Smith said. “We finally got over that hump of fighting out of adversity and guys pointing their fingers and bickering. Finally a couple of our kids who were supposed to be our leaders just started to be the guys who were going to encourage teammates and bring them along and to me that was about the time we started turning things around a little bit.”
The Redbirds suffered many ups and downs on the court during the ‘15-16 season, but it was a tragedy that struck off the court that really strengthened their bond.
On Feb. 16, Demonte Wigfall, a 2015 AHS grad and member of the ‘14-15 boys’ basketball squad, died in a car accident in Rockford. The Redbirds felt the effects of it back home, too.
Senior Marcus Latham sported a Wigfall T-shirt while walking onto the court during the starting lineup announcement at the sectional final. It was something he’s been doing since his death and he really thinks that tragedy put the basketball season in perspective and brought the team together.
“It did bring us together, especially the Edwardsville game (Feb. 19),” Latham said. “There was a lot of emotion that game, crying before the game and then there was a speech before they announced names. It was really emotional. We wanted to play for Demonte and it got us going.
“(I’ve been wearing that jersey) every game since Edwardsville and not everybody does it. People ask me, ‘Why do you wear that shirt?’ And I say, ‘Because I’d feel wrong if I didn’t.’ Everything I do now is for him. Him just going away like that is tough. I just want to let everyone know that’s my brother and I ball for him.”
Smith said the ‘15-16 Redbirds were just a special group that he won’t soon forget. The seniors leaving the program include: Latham, Tre Smith, Paul Harris, Jordan Golley and Kenny Burnett.
“Those five seniors have put in a lot of time and effort over the course of four years,” Coach Smith said. “We ask a lot of our kids and they’ve always been there. It’s never been a battle to get them to show up and work out and do the things they need to do, even in the summer when we don’t play. That core group of kids has always been there. They are quality kids and I love my guys.”
And with returning starters Edwards and Kevin Caldwell Jr. next season, along with Ty’ohn Trimble — who saw good minutes of the bench — and a mix of younger talent, things will look good again.
“We’ll have good players,” Smith said. “It will be similar to this year where we’ve got to find them a way to get some experience and give them a little baptism, but once we do that we will be all right.”
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