The Greatest: In the Peoria area, one boys basketball program remains the gold standard: Manual

Kirk Wessler
Journal Star
Sergio McClain, left, and the Manual boys basketball team celebrate on court after winning their fourth consecutive Class AA state championship.

PEORIA — Coaches insist you can’t win without talented players. But in high schools, talent comes and goes, so maintaining success requires more.

Start with a head coach, who hires a good staff. Determine a philosophy; how you’ll play offense and defense, conduct practice, teach fundamentals. Set high expectations on and off the court, maintain discipline ...

For generations, Manual boys basketball has embodied all of that.

But in a hotbed of high school hoops, how did Manual become the gold standard?

One game. Thirty-two glorious minutes, during which everything about Manual basketball came into focus. Tradition was honored. Greatness was confirmed.

March 22, 1997. Eleven thousand, five hundred twenty-two fans crammed into Carver Arena. Every seat was taken, and the fire marshal took a holiday. Fans stood five-deep around the concourse and sat on the stairways in the upper-bowl aisles, all the way to the top of the building.

Manual was chasing history, trying to become the first school to win four consecutive Illinois boys state basketball championships. The Rams were ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 1 in the nation, by USA Today. In their way was Harvey Thornton, the No. 2 team in the same rankings.

The game tipped off, and Thornton sprang to an 18-4 lead. Manual was in a tough spot, but that was nothing new.

“When I got to Manual in 1966, basketball was something to do after football season was over and until baseball season started,” Dick Van Scyoc says.

It wasn’t as if Manual basketball was a black hole. In their first half-century, the Rams won the 1930 state championship and three other top-four trophies. But in the five years before Van Scyoc arrived to coach, Manual’s record was 59-56, including one season at 2-19. Meanwhile, Manual football under Ken Hinrichs was a perennial power, posting four unbeaten seasons in that pre-playoff era. Ed Stonebock’s baseball program was coming off his second state title and about to win a third.

Six years of steady building finally got the basketball Rams their first regional title under Van Scyoc. That 1972 team reached the state semifinals before losing to the Dolton Thornridge team still revered as perhaps the greatest in Illinois history.

It would be another decade before Manual returned to state, and there were some rocky seasons in between. But the often undersized Rams established a reputation for tenacity, discipline and relentless defense, and those traits never wavered.

By 1997, Manual had talent. Pretty much every year since 1981, the Rams had been producing Division I college players. But 1997 was special. Seniors Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin would become the first teammates to finish 1-2 in polling for Illinois Mr. Basketball. Junior Frank Williams, who would be voted Mr. Basketball the next season and eventually reach the NBA, completed the first trio from the same school to be selected first-team all-state by The Associated Press.

With the crowd roaring, they stormed back against Thornton, which was led by future NBA player Melvin Ely and future NFL players Antwaan Randle-El and Napolean Harris, to take a 29-23 halftime lead. But Thornton opened the second half with a 14-0 run that had Manual reeling.

Longtime Manual assistant Chuck Westendorf, now retired, tells countless stories. One in particular illustrates the Rams’ mental toughness and resilience.

It was the early 1990s, and the players were being drilled on the principle of guarding their man while always keeping an eye on the ball. Westendorf noticed Howard Nathan looking away and fired the ball at Nathan’s head from short range. Knocked the kid on his butt.

Says Westendorf: “Nobody went to help him up; not me, Wayne (McClain, then an assistant), Coach Van. Coach told him to get up off the floor now or get out the door.”

Nathan didn’t leave. He became Mr. Basketball in 1991.

So against Thornton, of course Manual rallied again, this time with a 25-1 rush of 3-pointers, slashing drives, dunks and that withering, trademark defense.

Manual had become almost a household name in state basketball during the 1980s, qualifying for the state’s Elite Eight four times and finishing third twice. The 1987 team was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 before Quincy knocked the Rams out of the quarterfinals with a last-second shot.

Westendorf says the surge resulted from quality players finally merging with a sound program built on discipline, hard work and high expectations. That’s no doubt true, but player development and opportunity also were part of the equation.

Van Scyoc says he started to see real improvement when the Rams began to participate in summer events, in the late 1970s. More players began to attend open gyms and work on their games year-round. Manual and its kids were not alone in those endeavors, but the coaching staff never missed a chance to reinforce the value of hard work.

“Coach Van would tell the kids,” Westendorf says, “‘Central is working really hard, Richwoods is working really hard. We’ve gotta outwork them.’”

Manual, in the midst of winning or sharing 14 conference championships and 13 sectionals in 18 seasons, lost a heartbreaker to Proviso East in the 1991 Class AA (big schools) state championship game, then broke through with its own title in 1994. Van Scyoc retired and turned over the program to his former player and longtime assistant, Wayne McClain, who added the next two state championships to the Rams’ resume before reaching the epic semifinal with Thornton in 1997.

By then, Manual was ready for anything, scared of nothing.

“I always wanted to play the best,” Van Scyoc says. “If you play somebody you’re supposed to beat by 20 and you win by 20-25, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But if you beat somebody you’re not supposed to beat, then you can walk off with your chest full.”

The old Mid-State conference schedule was plenty tough, but Van Scyoc long ago had begun scheduling non-conference games against state powers. Then he took it up another notch and began looking for competition out of state. He got the Rams booked into the prestigious KMOX Shootout in St. Louis and also took them to a special event in Cincinnati.

McClain, who would go on to become an assistant coach at Illinois and Kansas State before dying of cancer in 2014, picked up where his mentor left off. In the 1996-97 season, Manual went 15-1 against ranked teams from eight different states.

Thornton that afternoon had one more big run left. Just as fans started to relax on Manual’s 54-38 lead, the Thunderbirds took the crowd’s breath away with 24 points in three minutes, and they had a potential three more in the air to force overtime as the buzzer sounded.

But that trademark Manual defense stepped up again and blocked it.

Final: Manual 65, Thornton 62. It was the Rams’ fourth win that season over teams ranked 2, 3 and 9 in the nation. That night, they defeated Aurora West for the title.

The championship was an unprecedented fourth in succession, fifth in state history. And the success continues. Current coach Derrick Booth, who played for the Rams in the early 1990s, has a pair of second-place trophies to his credit and will enter the 2016 tournament as one of the favorites to win the 3A state championship.

“Those kids,” Thornton coach Rocky Hill said back in ’97, “are just different.”

Yes. They’re the greatest.


Rankings of the top 5 greatest Peoria area boys prep basketball teams

Journal Star staff

  1. Manual
  2. Peoria High
  3. Richwoods
  4. Pekin
  5. Washington


  1. Manual
  2. Washington
  3. Peoria High
  4. Brimfield
  5. Richwoods