Herscher High School’s gymnasium has attracted many a thrill into this small town since it opened in December, 1968. But during this year’s post season tournament, only echoes from the past can be heard.
For its first 20 years, our spacious gym was put to use annually as a site of IHSA post-season tournaments. After all, Herscher’s gym is large enough to accommodate well over 2,000 fans. In more recent times, those post-season tourneys have been passed around, often to much smaller venues.
The Herscher gym is packed with many memories. Here are my personal favorites:
The most talent in one game…
Arguably the most basketball talent ever assembled in our gymnasium for one game happened on March 7, 1980, when Luther South and Providence squared off for the Herscher sectional championship. NCAA Division 1-bound centers Pierre Cooper of Luther South and Walter Downing of Providence put on a show before a near-capacity crowd. Added to that mix was Mike Conley, a future Olympic gold medalist.
“We’ve just seen the state championship game here,” said Herscher principal Doug McFarland as he awarded the sectional trophy to Luther South following the Braves’ 41-39 overtime win.
McFarland was right. Eight days later, Luther South was the state champ.
Tigers’ first sectional…
The Herscher Tigers won their first-ever regional at Momence in 1981, setting the stage for the Tigers’ first appearance in a Herscher Sectional. The defending state champs from Luther South successfully defended their Herscher sectional title on March 3, 1981 with a 57-52 win over HHS before a huge crowd.
Early in the game, Luther South’s Mike Conley went airborne around the free throw line and scored the game’s first two points. (Eleven years later, he would score an Olympic gold medal in the triple jump at Barcelona.) All-stater Pierre Cooper scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Junior guard Brian Scoggin kept a tight Herscher team in the game with his 14-point performance. Scoggin, Scott Meents, Pat Huette, and Bruce Deckard were still a year away from Herscher’s finest basketball hour.
Home court stop on trip to state…
The Tigers had the entire Kankakee County West area worked into a frenzy in March of 1982. After posting a 48-47 win over McNamara at McNamara in the regional, the Tigers passed back through Herscher on their way to the Assembly Hall.
Playing before a home crowd of 2,400, Herscher won its only sectional title in school history with a 67-58 victory over Chicago Leo.
Herscher’s Illinois-bound all-stater, Scott Meents, led all scorers with 26 points. Herscher would go on to win the super-sectional over Providence, and eventually finished third at state.
But on March 5, 1982, the HHS gymnasium rocked like it never had before.
What a week in ‘88…
Instead of being awarded a sectional tournament, the IHSA “stuck” Herscher with a regional in 1988. And what a regional it was!
The field of seven featured four state-ranked teams – Watseka (23-2), Herscher (23-1), Crescent-Iroquois (22-3), and Central (17-6). Donovan, with a lowly 18-5 record, was seeded fifth despite having defeated two of the top four.
It all boiled down to a Herscher-Watseka championship on March 4, 1988. Those who weren’t lucky enough to wedge their way into the gym for this overtime thriller watched on closed-circuit TV in the adjacent cafeteria.
Watseka and Dennis Miller out-dualed Herscher and Richie Jensen, 76-72. Jensen scored 35 points and Miller finished with 30.
“I’m going to remember I was there,” said Watseka coach Keith Baldwin. This may have been the greatest game ever played in Herscher. About eight months later, Jensen would die in a car accident.
Tigers knock Mac out…
Herscher hosted its first sectional in several years in 1993, and the Tigers surprised many area fans by being one of the four participating teams.
After winning their regional, the ‘93 Tigers became only the second HHS team to advance to a sectional final. How? By posting a 48-46 win over rival McNamara.
Ryan O’Connor’s driving layup in the closing seconds broke the tie. With about 10 seconds left in this thriller, the senior guard broke to the baseline, wiggled his way through three defenders, and put in the layup with two seconds left. His shot may not have been heard around the world, but it triggered plenty of noise in Herscher’s gymnasium.
Two nights later, Big 10-bound Jerry Gee and his St. Martin de Porres teammates ended Herscher’s Cinderella season by the tune of 62-36.
The gym’s record crowd…
The HHS gym’s largest crowd (some say over 3,000) gathered in the 1973 sectional championship game when future NBA all-star Jack Sikma and St. Anne routed Chicago Christian. Fans packed every corner of the gym, and filled temporary bleachers on the stage.
Maybe next year…
Hopefully, post-season basketball will return to Herscher next season. Although the Herscher gymnasium is getting close to its 50th birthday, it remains the area’s best venue for an IHSA sectional and the crowds it attracts.