AdVantage News | Caleb Motsinger
Head coach Eric Smith on the sidelines at West Elementary against East St. Louis on January 14.
The growing success story of the Alton High boys basketball team developed before the Redbirds won their opening game this season.
The players will tell you it started in the off-season. And it has progressed from there.
“We had a 6-0 record in the SIUE summer tournament and that got us going,” AHS junior Darrius Edwards said. “We knew we could be successful this season.”
The Redbirds knew what they were talking about and they have put their words into play. Alton, which defeated visiting Granite City, on Friday night, improved to 18-2 overall.
Alton, rated No. 7 in the latest Associated Press Class 4A state poll, is 7-1 in the Southwestern Conference and battling Edwardsville and East St. Louis for the title. The Redbirds goal is to win it outright, something they haven’t done since 1979-80, when John “Main” Smith and Troy Washpun ignited them.
“It has been a long time since we have won the conference and we’d like to do it this season,” junior guard D’Antae McMurry said. “We just need to keep playing hard.”
Or just like the Birds have played since summer ball. Starters McMurray, Michael Williams-Bey and key reserve Keshon Young transferred from Marquette Catholic and their addition has give the Redbirds strength and depth.
“Our secret weapon is our depth,” McMurray said.
Their best weapon may be their ability to work together. There’s a common denominator among the players, said Williams-Bey, a senior guard.
“We don’t like to lose,” he said.
The Redbirds won their first 10 games, nearly matching the start of the 1973-74 team that went 11-0, including the Carbondale Holiday Tournament title. This year’s edition lost to Centralia in the championship game of the Orphans’ tournament and it has suffered a one-point loss to at home to East St. Louis.
Yet the Birds bounced back in style with a 59-56 win at Edwardsville and then won four consecutive games to claim the Washington Tournament title. Their victory over Granite City stretched their winning streak to six games.
“The guys love to play, they love to compete and they love to win,” second-year AHS coach Eric Smith said. “We have good leadership and the kids aren’t afraid to say something, if it’s needed, to somebody else on the team.
“They hold each other accountable.”
That’s important, if the Redbirds are to continue their winning ways. Take it from 6-7 junior center Bryan Hudson. He’s averaging 9 points a game. Edwards is getting 10.2, while McMurray (12.6 points) and Williams-Bey (14.6 ppg) serve as the leaders.
“We’ve bonded together,” Hudson said. “We pass the basketball and share it. What we need to keep doing is stay focused and we will do that. Coach keeps us focused.”
Smith said the Redbirds, 14-18 during his first season last year, have maintained their steeled demeanor mostly on their own. They haven’t veered off course.
“We have talented players, but we also have unselfish ones and players who have made a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “I want them to be confident, have a little bounce in their step and show a little swagger.”
Confident, not cocky or complacent, is what Smith preaches to the Redbirds. They’ve maintained that attitude even when 6-5 junior Carlos Anderson suffered a fractured knuckle on his right hand. Anderson sustained the injury in Alton’s opening game of the Centralia Tournament.
Since then, the Redbirds have gone 10-2 and they are eagerly awaiting Anderson’s return. He recently had the cast removed from his hand and could play soon.
“We’ve dealt with Carlos’ absence very really well,” Smith said. “We’ve still played competitive basketball and a lot of different guys have stepped up for us. Everybody in the conference has good players, but I like our depth. We have kids that would get more exposure if they were on a different team.”
The Redbirds will tell you that are happy to be playing for Alton. They are putting together the pages for a story to remember.
“Our biggest goal is to win the conference,” Williams-Bey said. “But we also want to win the regional and sectional and go to state.”
McMurray figures it’s doable. “We play hard, even when we are down,” he said, pointing to overcoming an 18-point deficit against Edwardsville. “Our offense starts with our defense and everybody likes our fast-paced, running style.”
He added, “Coach (Smith) tells us to go out and play hard and share the ball with each other. He gives us plenty of freedom within his structure.”
Edwards said the Redbirds are making the most of their opportunities. “We have good teamwork, we are bonding a lot and playing together,” he said. “We have to keep doing that and play every game like it’s our last one.”