Sages sectional champs

Monticello High School boys basketball players celebrate a sectional title at Clifton on March 4, 2022.

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Pregame warmup: Monticello came within striking distance of a Class 2A state title in 2021-22 but fell to Nashville in the state championship game. Nevertheless, the Sages return a talented core of four seniors and will expect underclassmen to step up as the season goes along. Long-time head coach Kevin Roy is hoping the new-look Sages will hit their stride by midseason.

Three questions with coach Kevin Roy

What are your expectations for this season?

“We’ve just got to find out who we are as a team. Our goal is to continue to work hard every day and get better, just to be the best we can be. We graduated seven seniors last year, so the guys we have stepping in this year and filling those roles, they don’t have the varsity experience yet. So we expect a lot of growth throughout the season. As far as roles and leadership and points and those types of things, that’s yet to be determined.We’ve got four seniors that we’ll have this year — Mick Wright, Tylor Bundy, Drew Sheppard and Will Ross — and out of those guys, Will Ross and Drew Sheppard are the only ones that really got any minutes at all last year. We’re excited about the guys we have in the program, and we’re excited about the things they can do. But it’s always an adjustment, stepping to the next level at the varsity level, going from JV to varsity as far as the speed of the game and filling those roles that were filled by other people last year.”

What are some strengths of the team?

“I always expect my teams to play great defense. I’ve always told the guys, ‘Just come from the heart and hustle and you don’t have to score 20 points, but you can play hard and defend hard as a team.’ So that’s the obvious expectation that we have in our program. We do have some good size this year, Drew Sheppard runs about 6-foot-4, and Will Ross is around 6-foot-4 as well. We’ve got a little bit more size this year around the basket, so hopefully we can take advantage of that. And then we’ve got some young guys, some sophomores and juniors, that we’re really expecting to step up and fill roles. And again, that may take some time for us to figure those things out, but I liked the kids and how hard they work and we’re excited about that.”

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Even though this team is less experienced than last year’s, does it help that the players have been in the program and seen how a state run should look?

“Without a doubt. I do believe success builds success, so the guys coming in this year, they put that expectation on themselves. That’s great when those kids have that expectation and you don’t have to put it on them yourself. My emphasis to them is don’t try to be like them, let’s just go out and be who we are and be the best that we can be. And if we do that, and figure out who we are, then I think we’ll be competitive and be in a position to win some ball games.”

30-second timeout: Roster and scheduling info

Key players: The two players with the most varsity experience — Sheppard and Ross — are used to winning. Sheppard guided the Sages’ football team to the playoffs under center this school year, while Ross led the Sages’ boys’ golf team to a Class 1A state tournament appearance.

Sheppard and Ross both played key roles on last season’s state runner-up team, with fellow seniors Bundy and Wright helping in supporting roles. Bundy was a standout wide receiver on the football team, while Wright has enjoyed success on Monticello’s track and field team.

Key games: Monticello will host its annual Holiday Hoopla tournament from Dec. 26-28, dates by which Roy hopes to have his team in a rhythm with players understanding their roles.

A tough Illini Prairie Conference awaits the Sages, with the league appearing deep from top to bottom. An away game at Paxton-Buckley-Loda on Jan. 20 followed by a home game against Prairie Central on Jan. 24 lead into road games at St. Joseph-Ogden on Jan. 27 and Rantoul on Jan. 31.

A road game at Unity on Feb. 14 will pose a late-season test as the Sages prepare for another run through the Class 2A tournament.