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Memories of March Madness

March 13, 1999 – I still remember that day.

This Challand Middle School sixth-grader, having moved back across the Rock River just 2 years before, was intrigued by the fact that there were people from Rock Falls on television. 

I was 12 years old; baseball and baseball cards were my thing, and that was pretty much it. I wasn’t a basketball kid, but here I was sitting on my large green living room rug watching a group of high schoolers in green uniforms from Rock Falls. 

Back then, before the growth of Internet and social media, “being on TV” was the big thing, and it seemed cool to me that people from the town I had lived in were on it. 

Of course, I didn’t know about the inner workings of a television network, and how showing the 1999 Class A state basketball finals was a matter of flipping switches. It was cable channel 19. Hours of C-SPAN programming were ignored so that the IHSA Television Network stream could take its place. 

I didn’t think Rock Falls was going to beat Waterloo Gibault in this championship game at halftime. Many people shared that same feeling with about 4 minutes left in the game. However, witnessing that lead shrink smaller – and the many steals and turnovers that came with it – made the game more exciting. 

Then came Brian Vance’s 3-point shot with 0.7 seconds left to win the title. I can tell you where I was and what my surroundings were as if I were hearing about an important moment in American history.

That was the first time I had ever heard of high school sports, or March Madness. Of course, I understood a lot more as I got older, went through my 4 years of high school, and now having covered high school sports in some form of medium for the last 17 years.

My first trip to the state finals was in 2002, and it was the girls basketball finals at Redbird Arena. I was a freshman student assistant on the Sterling girls basketball team, and Amy Fulfs had qualified to shoot at the 3-Point Showdown that year. I remember seeing Chicago Marshall and Chicago Heights Marian play in a Friday quarterfinal, and hearing about the legendary Commandos coach, Dorothy Gaters, who is still coaching with over 1,000 wins and recently won a 2A title.

Seeing all of these different teams with many different backgrounds intrigued me, and influenced the genesis of my journalism career. The parent company I began with did some state finals work with Mount Carroll in 2003, as well as the Shawn Livingston-led Peoria High teams of 2003 and 2004. 

I covered Rockford Boylan’s one game at the 2007 Class AA finals. The split to four classes happened the next year. It was an uneventful game for the Steve Goers-coached Titans; Lincolnshire Stevenson shut them out in the second quarter en route to a win.

Trying to salvage this trip somehow, I bought a new book at one of the Peoria Civic Center gift kiosks: “100 Years of Madness,” by Scott Johnson, Curt Herron, Pat Heston, Jeff Lampe and Bob Leavitt. 

The century mark was celebrated in 2007, and a “100 Legends” team was named; Vance is one of them. Many of the legends were available for a meet-and-greet at the March Madness Experience.

With this new book, I thought I may as well get some signatures. Technically, collecting autographs is taboo in journalism, but I figured it didn’t mean a whole lot at the preps level.

Gracing the front cover is Providence star Walter Downing, who led the Celtics to the 1979 Class A title. 

Phil and Paul Judson and Bill Schultz, stars on the 1952 championship team from tiny Hebron (enrollment 98), have their autographs in green ink on the page commemorating them. 

“Big George” Wilson, star of the Marshall title teams in 1958 and 1960, signed on pages for both teams. His 1958 squad defeated Rock Falls in the championship game. 

Vergil Fletcher, who coached Collinsville to the 1961 championship, was the oldest living state final coach at the event, and slowly signed his name across a picture of him and his grandson, Marc.

About 50 more signatures are in the book, and I’ve added more in recent years; including Brad Bickett, who was named as one of the 100 Legends as a player at Ohio and a coach at Bureau Valley; Thom Sigel, who coached the 1999 Rockets, and Jorge Acosta, one of the stars of that team; and former Eastland coach Tony Dunlap, who was an assistant coach on Pittsfield’s 1993 Class A title team.

The best signature I have is of Hales Franciscan coach Gary London, whose team won the 2003 title with a 58-53 win over Mount Carroll. The article on that team also mentioned a comment from London that sparked an inquiry as to how his team attracted one of its star players, Nate Minnoy, and the fact that Hales “… recruited him coming out of eighth grade, but he chose at that time to go to Mt. Carmel.”

London’s signature is next to that paragraph.

My eventual mission is to get as many signatures in the book as possible, as long as they are mentioned in it.

Players and coaches from the 1998-99 Rock Falls High School boys basketball state championship team will observe the 20th anniversary of their season at 6 p.m. March 23 at Deer Valley Golf Club, 3298 Hoover Road in Deer Grove.

The Rockets won the Class A state championship and finished with a record of 31-3.

Members of the 1997-98 team, which went 23-8 and won a sectional title, as well as the 1999-2000 team, which reached the state finals and finished 25-5, also will be honored.

A social hour with appetizers and a cash bar will be from 6 to 7 p.m., followed by speeches, presentations and a question-and-answer session. 

Admission is $10, and souvenirs will be given to attendees while supplies last.

Visit Rocket Nation 1998, 1999 & 2000 on Facebook for more information.

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