WASHINGTON — Washington reached the mountain top in a season filled with pandemic-laden valleys.
With no Illinois High School Association postseason, the Panthers refocused their energy, charged through a perfect Mid-Illini Conference boys basketball season and dominated the first-ever league tournament.
Washington completed a 17-1 season by winning the three tourney games by an average of 32.7 points — capped by a 69-52 victory Saturday against No. 2 seed Metamora in the finals.
“We never used the term Mid-Illini tournament, not a single time in our locker room,” Washington coach Eric Schermerhorn said. “We didn’t let that be known in public, but we were playing the state series (Saturday). We looked at this as the state tournament.”
All the scores:Mid-Illini, Big 12 basketball tournament results
The Panthers journey started like every other team, with curiosity as to how this most unusual of seasons would go.
“There were all these unknowns,” Schermerhorn said. “Then we started talking about the knowns. We knew how much these guys cared for each other. We knew how much the coaches loved them. We knew how invested their parents were. When you do all those things outside of the locker room and off the basketball floor, sometimes things work out.”
How Washington beat Metamora
Washington took control early against Metamora. Already ahead by 10 points, the Panthers used a 12-point second-quarter run to open a 34-12 lead. Washington had seven 3-pointers at that point.
Junior guard Drew Lewis would finish with 24 points, 18 in the second half as Washington held off a Metamora comeback attempt.
“I’m elated right now that our kids through their investment, hard work and doing things right got rewarded (Saturday),” Schermerhorn said.
Growing closer as a team
Washington grew close as a team throughout the six-week season on the court, despite COVID-19 taking away things off the court.
“Some of the things that were taken away from us are the very things these kids are going to remember decades from now,” Schermerhorn said. “I know that our kids remember team meals, and they weren’t there. I know that a kid remembers a hard practice, or a hard offseason, or a fun trip in the summer to a tournament at Riverside-Brookfield that we never got to go to.
“The playing is fun, but there’s nothing better than bonding with your buddies, your best friends, getting to know each other. And for us to persevere through that, this has been a blessing. Because we did that on the floor. You could see us staying in a hotel on the floor. I could see that. I could see us having team meals on the floor, the way we huddled up. I’m just proud they took that and found a way to come together as a team.”
Washington’s journey began a year ago
The dedication began a year ago, after a regional championship loss to Notre Dame, said 6-foot-7 senior Devon Vanderheydt.
“One thing we talked about was getting in the gym and doing our thing,” said Vanderheydt, who scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds against Metamora. “Work as hard as we possibly could. Our goal before all this was state championship, play in the State Farm Center. But with the COVID, that obviously changes and turns into a conference title. We put our all into winning the conference outright and then winning the conference tournament.”
3 questions:Washington basketball player Devon Vanderheydt
Vanderheydt played his final game at Torrey Gym on Saturday, along with fellow seniors guard Ethan Mountz and forward Tyler Bass.
Lewis completed a strong junior season with one of his better games of the year in the title game.
“I did it for Devon and all the seniors,” Lewis said. “This is my last time playing with them, so I had to go hard for them.”
Remembering Kevin Brown
Before and after the game, the Panthers could not help but think of former coach Kevin Brown, who died in June of 2019.
“Before the game, my father (assistant coach Jerry Vanderheydt) said in the locker room, ‘Everybody close your eyes and think about coach Brown, what he would be saying to you,’” the younger Vanderheydt recalled. “I almost teared up before the game. That’s why I had to keep my emotions straight. It’s my last time playing here. I had to put my heart out, play for my guys and end up with the win.”
After the game, Schermerhorn likened the 2020-21 Panthers to some of Brown’s top teams.
“Coach had a lot of good basketball teams,” Schermerhorn said. “His first year, supersectional team (2005), Matt Roth and Dyricus (Simms-Edwards) final four team (2008), Ben Ryan and Alec Peters sectional final team (2012). Those were three of coach Brown’s greatest teams he had. This team is right there next to those three teams in terms of leadership, talent, work ethic, investment.”
Stan Morris can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @stanmorrispjs