PEORIA – Travis Williams basked in the ovation from the Newman faithful, walking off the court for the final time as a Comet with a huge smile on his face.
His double-double had helped his team secure a win in the Class 1A third-place game at the IHSA state tournament, and he was greeted with a hug from coach Ray Sharp and matching smiles and high-fives from the rest of the Comets bench.
But waiting near the end of that line of coaches and teammates was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound form of sophomore Devon House, who all but swallowed up the 6-2, 190-pound Williams in a big bear hug.
“When he came off the court, it was special; it’s his last game, and he played really well,” House said of his low-post mentor. “He came up with a big game on a big stage, and I was really happy for him. I just gave him a big hug to say thanks.”
All that was missing was a torch for Williams to pass on to House as the embrace ended.
Sandwiched between a current Division I player in Noah McCarty and a potential Division I player in House, Williams served as the bridge between two of the best post players Newman has seen in the past several years.
It’s a role he has relished, and really taken to heart.
“It’s been such an amazing ride; I could not ask for any better high school career,” Williams said. “Just coming from my freshman and sophomore year with Noah, seeing that work ethic and how much work you need to put in to be successful, then being able to play with Devon all season long, it’s definitely an amazing experience.”
That’s a theme with this year’s seniors. Newman won sectional titles when this group of seniors were in sixth and eighth grades in 2012 and 2014, and added a regional crown when they were seventh graders. That’s a lot to live up to, and a lone regional championship their sophomore season was serving as a rather large motivating factor for their final season.
“Coming up short all those times to now, my brothers and I knew we wanted to make a deep run and do something special,” Williams said, pointing to classmates Cade Gorzny, Gehrig Koerner and Drake Farster. “Making the state finals for the first time in team histiory, leaving the legacy behind is just a great feeling.
“There’s going to be a lot of celebration when we hang up that first basketball banner in our gym.”
The hard work and success of these seniors hasn’t gone unnoticed by their younger teammates. With Williams serving as a strong mentor in the post, Gorzny setting a strong example at point guard, and Koerner playing the role of steady perimeter shooter, the juniors and sophomores from this season who will be back as the seniors and juniors next year have seen some pretty good mentorship on and off the court.
“They really led us and pushed us all year, and they’ve helped us a lot with the way that we play,” junior guard Brycen Bartel said. “Their experience helps us a lot, inside and outside. Everything passes down, so I’m hoping I can do the same thing for the people coming next year.
“But seeing them end their careers with a win, going out with a bang, that was really cool for them to do that – and for us to see.”
House credits Williams for “getting me to where I am right now, a mentally stronger person,” and has tried to soak up all he can from a friend who has always encouraged him and pushed him to get better.
It’s also set an expectation of where House and his mates want to be the next couple of seasons.
“We’re going to be really hungry to get back here to state next year,” House said. “We lose a really big part of our team in the four seniors, but us players who are coming back are going to work hard to improve and see what we can do.”
Williams and Gorzny think they can do great things. Now that the state barrier has been broken, the seniors are happy with the legacy they are leaving behind and the bar they’ve set for their younger teammates.
“We just wanted to come in here and be good leaders,” Gorzny said. “Hopefully we did a good job of it, and these guys know what the expectations are now. I hope we left this program in the best place we could, and it’s awesome that we made history.
“I know Ray will be talking about this for awhile – actually, I think we all will.”