Photo by Diane Cox
East Alton-Wood River senior Mike Stimac takes a jump shot during the Carlinville Holiday Tournament over Christmas break.
East Alton-Wood River senior Mike Stimac never believed he'd be thinking about hitting the 1,000 career-point mark when he stepped on the court as a freshman. Matter of fact, he felt a little under par on the hardwood.
Stimac dressed for the varsity team as a ninth-grader, but was only pulled into action on two separate occasions. He never thought he'd be just 31 points away and on pace to break the plane on his home court. He will be the 13th player at EA-WR to reach the 1,000-point goal.
"My freshman year I couldn't shoot at all," Stimac said. “Going into it, I didn't think I'd ever be here. It's been a lot of hard work. Honestly, I was actually pretty bad at basketball. I put in a lot of extra time and work to change that."
EA-WR head coach Kyle Duncan was the freshman coach during Stimac's first year of hoops in 2011-2012. Duncan saw a lot of heart in his young player and felt Stimac could have some potential with some extra work.
"Mikey is nothing short of impressive," Duncan said. "He was pretty raw when I got him as a freshman and he had a lot of work ahead of him. Through his dedication, hard work and the drive to get better, he's earned the reputation of being one of the best players in our area. Mikey loves basketball and has shown that through his self-discipline in the game."
During the 2012-2013 season, Stimac suffered a knee injury during a rival game against the neighboring Roxana Shells that forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
Entering his senior season, Stimac re-injured his knee when he suffered a torn meniscus in the first game of the Metro East Lutheran Turkey Tipoff Tournament. Stimac warmed the bench with a knee brace for the first several games before deciding to put off surgery and play on the injured leg to finish his senior year.
"If it weren't for his knee injury, he would have hit 1,000 points a lot sooner," Duncan said. "His knee has cost him around 15-16 games throughout his career. He's had to average a lot of points to still be able to make the list. That's pretty tough. If he didn't have that injury, I believe he would have made it into the upper three in career points for Wood River."
After getting a slow start and taking time to build strength, Stimac has proven his senior season is not a lost cause. Stimac is averaging 19.1 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Stimac has had a big impact on junior Blake Marks, who averages a team-best 19.6 ppg.
"Mikey is awesome and a great ball player," Marks said. "To be honest, I've always wanted to be like him on and off the court. He's a great guy and I'm thankful to have the chance to play next to him and follow in his footsteps. I've learned things from Mikey like attacking the basket, that's where he gets a lot of his points and the jump shot, he always knocks that down. Working with him when Duncan opens the gym early for us has really helped me improve, too. Duncan has done a tremendous amount of work with us with extra workouts, drills and letting us have the time to shoot. I don't think either of us would have any of the success we've had if it weren't for our teammates on the court."
It's one thing to have the admiration of your coach and teammates, it's another to be respected by those you face in competition.
"Mike is one of the hardest-working basketball players to come through the Riverbend during my tenure at Roxana," Roxana head coach Mark Briggs said. "He has always created matchup problems for us. His work ethic is a testament to his ability to overcome injuries and obstacles. This illustrates what type of person he is and the dedication he has for the game. Coach Duncan has helped make Mike the player he is today."
To put it in perspective, if a player plays at the varsity level from his freshman through his senior year, they would play roughly 116 regularly scheduled games. A player would have to average just under 10 ppg to reach 1,000 points. Stimac has only played 73 career games and has had to average more than 15 ppg. to reach this accomplishment.
"I'm excited to reach this goal," Stimac said. "I don't think about it much. I'm excited to get it, but also move on. I'm not feeling pressure about it. I just want to get past it and focus on the team as a whole and think ahead to regionals. I really want to win a regional. As a team we haven't won a title of any kind. That's the real goal ahead. I'm glad this achievement is happening before regionals so it's out of the way for us to focus."
Stimac gives credit to his teammates for his opportunities and to Duncan for standing by him throughout his trials and tribulations.
"Coach Duncan has been with me my whole career," Stimac said. "Anytime I've ever asked him to open up the gym or if any of us wanted an extra workout, he'd meet us at 5:30 in the morning. He never told us no and told us he'd always be there as long as we were willing to show up. I give a lot of credit to him.
“My teammates give me my opportunities on the court. Buck, Marks, Daily, Bukovich, they get the ball to me and do their part for the team. Can't do it without those guys."
Duncan feels it's an honor to coach a player like Stimac and is proud to see him reach this accomplishment.
"I've been fortunate to have Mikey," Duncan said. "I know next year I'll have to learn to live without him. I rely on him a lot and it's probably one of those things where I won't realize what I have until it's gone. He's something special and really deserves this achievement. He is the example of the type of player any coach would want. He never argues, he listens and he works really hard. He's a team leader and a fun player."
The Oilers play at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Marquette Catholic and then at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at home vs. Bunker Hill. Stimac is projected to hit his benchmark Saturday.