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Lincoln and Railer Nation will remember and always adore this team

Railers make history coming home second in state

By Jeff Benjamin

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[March 24, 2014]  PEORIA March Madness turned into March Sadness on Saturday in Peoria as the Lincoln Railers fell to defending state champions Morgan Park 59-49 in the Class 3A state championship game. The loss allowed the Railers to come home with the second-place trophy, the best finish in school history. However, with just 2:43 left in the third quarter, it was looking like the Railers might bring home the title.

That's when the Railers were victims of a Railer-type defensive-infused run. The Mustangs blitzed Lincoln with a 26-2 run fueled by aggressive pressure defense that led to Lincoln turnovers. A team that averaged just six turnovers a game for the season was forced into five turnovers in the just the final two minutes of the third quarter, the segment of the game that turned the outcome. Morgan Park was able to score 17 points in the second half off Railer mistakes.

By virtue of their win on Friday over Rockford Lutheran, Lincoln had guaranteed the best finish in school history. The early stages of the game belonged to Lincoln even though Morgan Park jumped on top first as first-team all-stater Josh Cunningham scored on the inside. Lincoln, working against the Mustang defense, got an easy score on an old reliable play as an alley-oop lob from Max Cook to Edward Bowlby tied the game at two. Charlie Moore hit the first of his two 3-pointers in the quarter to give the lead back to the squad from Chicago, and Joey Olden answered to knot the game at five.

Moore's second 3 was from well beyond the 3-point line to put Lincoln down 8-5, and an offensive rebound from Cunningham stretched the margin to five. The Railers were getting good looks at the basket, but early shots were not falling. Tyler Horchem brought Lincoln closer with a 3-pointer, and when Cook drove the lane for the basket and was fouled, the Railers had tied the game at 10. Cook missed the free throw that would have given Lincoln the lead, and very uncharacteristically, the Railers struggled at the free-throw line, hitting just four of their 12 attempts.

The Railers began their best stretch of basketball on Saturday as Gavin Block was fouled going to the hoop. It was an important play, as with over two minutes left in the quarter, Cunningham was forced to go to the bench with his second foul. Block's first free throw put Lincoln on top for the first time and also allowed him to reach the 1,000-point mark in his career. The junior missed the second, but a Morgan Park miss allowed the Railers to come down and find Block again, who connected for 3, and the Lincoln lead had grown to 14-10. With Cunningham out of the game, the Morgan Park offense seemed to stagnate, while the Railer defense took advantage. Another lob, this one from Olden to Bowlby, increased the lead to six, and when Block hit a 3 as time ticked down at the end of the first quarter, all was looking good in River City as the Railers were on a 14-0 run and led 19-10.

Morgan Park finally ended the Lincoln run with a bucket to cut the Railer lead to seven to start the second quarter. The movement of the Railer offense put Morgan Park in foul trouble early as Cook went to the line early in the second quarter. The senior missed the front end of the one-and-bonus and the Railers did not get to the line the rest of the period, missing opportunity based on the Morgan Park foul trouble.

Unlike Friday, the 3s were falling for Lincoln in the second quarter. Three-pointers from Block and Cook sandwiched a basket from Morgan Park, and the Lincoln lead was now at 11, up 25-14.

A quick four-point spurt brought the Mustangs (24-6) within seven. More important, Bowlby headed to the bench at the 2:40 mark with his second foul. As this Lincoln team has shown all season, on any given night, someone unexpected may come up big. With Bowlby on the bench, Adam Conrady was called to the battle and did yeoman's work on the boards and playing defense.

Olden hit his second 3 of the afternoon to put the Lincoln lead back to double figures at 28-18. Another 3 from Morgan Park pulled them closer, but the Railer end-of-quarter magic continued. After a missed shot as time was ticking down, the rebound fell to Horchem hanging around the front of the basket. Horchem's flip shot crawled over the front of the rim as the horn sounded, sending Lincoln into the locker room with all the momentum and a nine-point advantage of 30-21.

Shooting woes were not on the minds of any member of the Railer Nation, which took over Carver Arena. Red and green as far as the eye could see were thinking about the possibilities that were just 16 minutes away. The Railers shot 55 percent (11-20) in the first half, including 7 of 14 from 3-point range. Morgan Park did not shoot poorly, making 47 percent of their shots. The key stat was that Lincoln had scored 12 points thanks to the nine miscues made by Morgan Park.

The early stages of the third quarter continued to be the playground of the Railers. Block scored on a basket going over Cunningham. After a 3 from Lamont Walker, Bowlby corralled an offensive rebound for a putback to give Lincoln a 34-24 lead. Morgan Park scored again to cut the lead to eight, before Block scored Lincoln's next five points on an out-of-bounds lob play, a drive down the lane and a free throw. When Block split the free throws at the 2:43 mark, Lincoln had extended to the largest lead of the game at 39-26 and things were looking very good for the Railers.

Then everything changed.

Morgan Park turned up the pressure, a ball-hawking, quick pressure like the Railers had not faced all season.

"They came after us hard, and we had turnovers and missed layups," Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said. "You cannot give them the advantage. We didn't make the adjustments."

Lincoln committed five of their 16 turnovers for the game in the final two minutes of the third quarter. Morgan Park had closed to 39-31. As the Railers were looking to hold for the last shot, Dellan Whatley knocked the ball away from Block and converted a layup with 12 seconds to go. The six-point lead quickly dwindled to four as Whatley again made his presence known by stealing the inbounds pass and dropping another layup down. Just that quickly, the 13-point lead was down to four as the teams headed to the fourth quarter.

The Mustangs continued the run to start the fourth with another 3 and Lincoln's lead was almost gone, up only 39-38. Railers fans were able to finally exhale when Bowlby was able to break out in front of the Morgan Park defense for a lay-in to push the margin back to three at 41-38. It would be unimaginable that the next time Lincoln scored, they would be down by 11. After the Mustangs scored to take their first lead since being up 10-8 in the first, they would not stop until more Lincoln turnovers became quick points for Morgan Park. In just about the first five minutes of the fourth, the Railers were forced into six more turnovers and the hopes for the state title were slipping away.

One possession after another came up empty for the Railers while Morgan Park either scored baskets or were sent to the line. By the time the barrage was over, Lincoln (34-3) and their fans were looking at a 52-41 deficit with 1:51 left in the game.

This team has heart and would not quit. Horchem hit a 3 to pull Lincoln to within eight. The obvious strategy was to send Morgan Park to the line and make them win it from the free-throw line. After a Morgan Park miss, the Railers were again not able to convert and were forced to foul. With Morgan Park up 54-44, Block split a pair of free throws, and Lincoln was able to turn the ball over and get a huge 3 from Will Cook with 49 seconds to go. The junior's 3 pulled Lincoln to within six at 54-48. After another Railer foul, Morgan Park made only one free throw and Block went to the basket, only to be fouled himself with 27 seconds remaining.

Being down only seven, it would take some kind of effort to complete the comeback. Block made the first to make it 55-49, but his second miss sealed the game for Morgan Park as Block fouled the Morgan Park rebounder, committing his fifth foul, joining Max Cook who had fouled out at the 1:13 mark. Free throws from the Mustangs rounded out the final score while red and green tears filled Railer Nation.

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After the game, coach Alexander summed up the feelings in the locker room.

"I'm crushed and they are crushed. There will always be a special place for this group," he said.

Players with jerseys over their heads to hide their faces, heads in hands over what might have been. For some unexplained reason, it was not meant to be.

One of the great things about youth is they have a short memory. The sadness and emptiness that Railer Nation felt as the season's final buzzer sounded was reversed on Saturday night as the Railers were treated to a homecoming befitting royalty. A parade that started at Steak 'n Shake and wound through lines of cars and fans waving, cheering, honking horns along the way through town emphasized to the team that this town was behind them, win or lose. As the parade got closer to the high school, the crowds grew to welcome home this team.

When activities director Sam Knox asked the pep band for a rendition of "Lincoln, Lincoln" to welcome back the Railers, the team entered Roy S. Anderson Gymnasium to a thunderous ovation. Some players were carrying cameras, documenting the moment while Edward Bowlby carried the spoils of their efforts, the trophy indicating they had won second place in the state of Illinois.

After Knox ran down some information about the season, the microphone was turned over to coach Alexander. The Hall of Famer thanked his coaches and players for all their hard work, every stoppage of words causing an eruption of applause. Alexander then directed some feeling for Railer Nation.

"Every bit of love and respect you (the fans) have for them (as he pointed to the team and coaches), believe me, they have for you," he said.

A number of the players spoke to the crowd, most giving thanks to their teammates, coaches and fans.

Senior Tyler Horchem may have summed up the night the best: "We have the best fans. We have the best student section. We have the best team in Lincoln High School history."

Plain and simple, it was a love fest. An opportunity for the fans, just one more time, to show their appreciation for the hard work and effort of the players, coaches and managers, as well as a chance for them to say thank you.

Joey Olden applauded the fans by saying, "You have allowed us to accept second place. It won't take us a week to get over this, and you have helped us in that."

A couple of other notes from the night saw Lincoln Mayor Keith Snyder announce that the portion of the road that goes in front of the school where Wyatt Avenue turns to Primm Road will be renamed Railer Way.

Something fitting about that, isn't it? When you talk basketball around here and say things are being done the Railer Way, you know what that is.

Also, due to IHSA restrictions, only 22 medals are usually handed out during the medal and trophy presentation. It is common for a school superintendent to be given one. Because of the limitations in medals, and the superintendent felt that "he deserves more than I do," LCHS Superintendent Robert Bagby called out manager Sam Tiffany and draped the medal around his neck. Nice move, Mr. Bagby.

In closing, Mr. Knox repeated a quote from coach Alexander from after the win over Champaign Central. Coach Al said, "By this time of year, most coaches are ready for the season to be over. I could coach this team forever."

Well, one thing is for sure: Lincoln and Railer Nation will remember and always adore this team.

Forever.

Thank you, Railers, for a great ride. The journey may not have ended exactly where we wanted it, but that is the joy of the journey you never know where you are headed or how you will get there. The pleasure is being along for the ride.

If I may, a few thank-yous. First, to coach Neil Alexander and the Railers. What a fantastic season to cover, both on the radio and here on LDN.

Thank you to Jim Ash at WLCN radio, who allowed me to do the games for the 13th year in a row, and to the Youngquists and everyone at LDN who let me share my thoughts here at Lincoln Daily News.

My broadcast partners throughout the season Josh Komnick, Scott Kirby and Joel Vinson I'm glad they were along to help me sound like I might know what I'm talking about. A special thank you to our producer at the radio station for most of our games this season, Paula Kodatt. Listeners have no idea the issues that may come up during our broadcasts and, if you didn't notice any problems, that is all a credit to the behind-the-scenes work of Paula.

Thank you to Mitch Smith, the Prater family and William Krepps, who acted as transportation when needed for our daughter. Sometimes schedules get in the way of people being where they need to be, and they made sure she was taken care of.

Finally, a thank-you to my wife and daughter. They are the ones who have to put up with late nights, both home and road games, lots of travel and especially me. Although, it is hard to fathom that when next season rolls around, our daughter will truly be a Railer.

Thanks again to everyone for all their comments. I appreciate them and hope you enjoyed the Railer articles. I look forward to next year. First game is only eight months away.

___

LINCOLN (49)

Block 6-8 4-8 19, Bowlby 4-6 0-0 8, Horchem 3-9 0-0 8, Olden 2-7 0-0 6, M.Cook 2-6 0-2 5, W.Cook 1-2 0-0 3, Conrady 0-2 0-0 0, Ebelherr 0-1 0-0 0, Krusz 0-0 0-0 0, Perry 0-0 0-0 0, Dunovsky 0-1 0-2 0. Team 18-42 4-12 49. 3-point field goals 9-26 (Block 3-4, Olden 2-5, Horchem 2-7, W.Cook 1-1, M.Cook 1-5, Ebelherr 0-1, Dunovsky 0-1, Bowlby 0-2).

MORGAN PARK (59)

Cunningham 13, Moore 12, Walker 12, Randall 8, T.Johnson 5, Harris 5, Whatley 4. Team 18-35 16-25 59. 3-point field goals 7-16 (Moore 3, Randall 2, Walker, Harris)

LCHS             19-11-9-10    49
Morgan Park   10-11-14-24  59

[By JEFF BENJAMIN]

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