TOLUCA - Paul Martin knew he had the makings of a good seventh-grade basketball team at Toluca Fieldcrest West Middle School this season.
But a state championship team?
"We expected to have a good year because this group had a good sixth-grade record," Martin said. "Did I expect us to make it to the state championship and win the tournament? No."
That's exactly what the Knights did, though, by knocking off four undefeated teams to capture the Class 7A Illinois Elementary School Association state title at Clinton last week.
The Knights, who finished with a 23-2 record, defeated Peoria Pleasant Valley, 60-56, as 5-foot-10 center Zach Kirkton scored 33 points and Jake Gerdes added 13. Kirkton averaged 28.1 points in four tournament games at Clinton.
"Josh was our sixth man on last year's team that placed second in the state, so we expected good things out of him," Martin said. "Jake Gerdes and Jordan Stalter were also on that team. They all went through the tournament experience last year and really enjoyed it. They wanted to get back there this year."
Those three players were joined by Darcy Rippel and Kaleb Garber in the starting lineup. The top three players off the bench were Trent Hartzler, Matt Gerardo and Eric May. Other team members included Matt Baxter, Tim Sanders, Kevin Block, Nick Meyer and James Leigh.
Martin, who was assisted by Greg Peterson and Zak Schwiderski, believes the Knights' come-from-behind victory over Ottawa Wallace was the springboard to the state title.
"That was the first time I thought it might be possible," admitted Martin. "We were down seven in the second half against a very good team, and the kids showed the character to come back."
The Knights won their last 12 games by averaging 56 points, including 51 at the state tournament, while allowing only 24. Both their losses during the regular season came to Class AA schools El Paso-Gridley and Streator Northlawn.
"At the beginning of the year, without a doubt, our defense carried us," Martin said. "We weren't great shooters, but we played a lot of pressure defense. Our defense turned into our offense. By the end of year, our offense carried us."