BLOOMINGTON — As an eighth-grader at Holy Trinity, Jack Gilmore learned how much effort and dedication playing for the Central Catholic High School varsity basketball team requires.
Gilmore’s older brother, Jacob, was a sophomore reserve on the Saints’ 2014 squad that won the Class 2A state championship.
“I just saw all the work they put in. My brother told me it doesn’t come easy,” said Gilmore, now a senior with first-hand knowledge. “With our practices, yeah it does not come easy. We’ve got to put in the work every day.”
Those 2014 Saints, led by guards Nick Norton and Jake Reinhart, won their final 10 games, culminating in a 76-62 triple-overtime victory over Nashville in the title game. Current senior James Morris fondly recalls that run.
“I remember everything about that state team, going to the games and everything. It was an awesome experience. I know all those boys, used to play with them,” Morris said Wednesday as the No. 7-ranked Saints practiced at Shirk Center. “They were a great, great team.
“It was amazing, very inspiring to us that that could be us someday. We could definitely do that.”
Morris, Gilmore and their teammates indeed have earned their opportunity to do that, bringing the 25-6 Saints back to Peoria for this weekend’s 2A state finals where they will face top-ranked Chicago Orr (28-4) in Friday’s 7:15 p.m. semifinal.
“It’s amazing,” said senior Patrick Rahuba, reliving Tuesday’s 47-46 super-sectional win over Deer Creek-Mackinaw. “Last night it kind of felt like a dream, but you wake up this morning and realize ‘wow, we actually made it to state.’ It’s big deal.”
The seeds for this state berth were planted four years ago, and not just by the varsity Saints’ title. With Gilmore, Morris and Owen Talbott, the Holy Trinity Saints advanced to the IESA’s 8-2A state tournament.
Heading on to Central, that trio would be joined by the Kingsley Junior High duo of Rahuba and Austyn Ellison as well as Epiphany’s Eli Davis.
“We said if we all teamed up, we’d have a really good team by the time we were seniors and fully developed,” said Morris. “That’s pretty much what happened. It all fell into place.”
“I think going into summer of freshman year, we all knew what we had,” added Gilmore. “We saw we had the talent, and now that it’s actually happening it’s a great feeling. It feels like all the work has paid off.”
So, how good were they back then?
“We were like we are now,” said Rahuba. “We’re just bigger.”
Well, actually they have improved. After posting a 16-10 varsity record last year and starting this season with an 0-4 mark in the Intercity Tournament with Morris sidelined by a football injury, Central has been almost unstoppable.
“I’ll tell you, these guys you can tell there’s a chemistry between them,” said Coach Jason Welch, whose team’s only two losses since Intercity have come by a total of five points. “They don’t like losing, they know where each other is on the floor, they compete with each other in practice. It’s fun to watch them each night.
“They’re selfless. You hear people say that, but when you come watch these guys play they make the extra pass. I have no idea who’s going to score more points one night than another. It’s because our guys share the ball so well.”
The Saints boast three players averaging double figures in Gilmore (13.4 ppg), Morris (10.6) and Ellison (10.6) and three others (Davis, juniors Tommy Nelson and Luke Yoder) above 8.0. That balance has been their calling card.
“It’s not about one person or two players. We’re seven players deep and we’re just able to work and play unselfish ball,” said Rahuba. “That’s what I love; we’re that good that so many people can go off at any time.”
Admitting it was tough missing the start of the season, Morris said he remained patient as his injury healed and never lost faith in the team following the winless start. But he knows there’s more left to accomplish to join the ranks of those 2014 Saints.
“We’re not done yet,” he said. “We’ve still got a job to do and we’re not satisfied by just going there. We want to win the whole thing.”