By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
It was March 2014.
The St. Anthony Bulldogs had just lost to Dieterich in the finals of the sectionals.
Cade Walsh was an eighth grader, but already confident in what he and his teammates could accomplish during their high school careers.
“We were in English class,” he recalled. “I said we wouldn’t lose that game and that we’d make it to the state tournament.”
“The teacher thought he was crazy,” added classmate Alex Beesley.
But young Walsh was so confident he signed a contract, more or less assuring a state tournament appearance.
Was that confidence or prophecy?
Ever since that day, that framed contract has been hanging in his bedroom.
“Even back then, I knew this was something we all wanted to do,” Walsh admitted. “We all had a chemistry, which along with the love we all shared for the game, made me confident that would happen.”
“We” – at that time – also included Beesley, along with Jack Nuxoll, Alex Deters and Wyatt Lawrence. As freshmen, that group took in Adan Levitt, who transferred from Effingham High School. And two years later, Brandon Runge joined as a transfer from Altamont.
This group of seven young men – all seniors at St. Anthony High School — has experienced winning basketball at every level. They went to the state tournament as seventh and eighth graders and continued their winning ways in high school.
A year ago, they walked off the Carver Arena Court in Peoria as Class 1A state basketball champions. And this year, they’ve compiled a 25-3 record and opened postseason play this week.
Yes, this special group has won a lot of games. But along the way, they have developed a bond that few others can relate to. Theirs is a true friendship that will last a lifetime.
“I can’t imagine playing on a team where you’re not best friends with the other people on the team,” said Jack Nuxoll, regarded as the quietest of the bunch.
“It takes a certain kind of friendship to hold each other accountable,” added Walsh, described as the most vocal.
“There’s not a guy here I don’t trust,” Beesley noted.
“At the state tournament, we kept getting asked about our friendship,” Deters explained. “It was like it was weird for us to be such good friends. That blew my mind.”
Just like the Bulldogs blew a lot of minds that weekend. Before the opening tip of last year’s Final Four, Effingham’s small parochial school was considered by most the fourth best team in Peoria.
But they opened with a 43-34 upset victory over Chicago Hope, the tournament favorite, and then followed with a 49-46 overtime thriller against Okawville that gave the school its first 30-win season and first state championship for boys basketball.
“There is really nothing like being in the locker room after a big win, but this was a whole new level,” Nuxoll said.
“Not only are these guys teammates to me, but they are also like my brothers,” Levitt added. “Celebrating State with them was something I’ll never forget and I wouldn’t want to do it with a better group of guys.”
“It was one of the greatest experiences in my entire life,” Lawrence noted. “We were able to achieve something we’d all worked so hard for.”
“To this day, I still can’t put into words what it was like to win State,” Deters explained. “It was just a moment that you had been dreaming of your whole life. Being able to accomplish that with my life-long friends is just so much more.”
“It was the best,” Beesley commented. “I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other group of guys. We all knew how much each of us had worked to make it possible to achieve that goal.”
“The fact that we are all close friends made the celebration even sweeter,” Runge said.
“Up to this point, it is easily the most rewarding and fulfilling moment of my life,” Walsh added. “It had been our dream as long as I can remember, and for it to finally happen with my best friends after years and years of hard work was a great moment.”
Most of the seven started playing varsity as sophomores. But by their junior year, four were in the starting lineup alongside the lone senior, Drew Gibson. Runge missed much of the season due to an ankle injury, but returned in time to help the team in the postseason.
They went 30-5 last year and heading into this week’s regional, the Bulldogs are 55-8 in their two main varsity seasons.
They notched their 55th win on February 13 when they beat the Altamont Indians 83-60 on Senior Night.
It was an emotional evening for this group of seniors that played their final game at The Enlow Center, a home court where they lost just three times in two years.
There were plenty of memories and some tears shed as they suited up for that final home contest. They talked about just “taking it all in” during warmups and the pre-game ceremony that honored the seniors.
Before leaving the gym that night, both Walsh and Deters walked to center court and kissed the floor.
Now, the postseason awaits.
This reporter was given the opportunity to sit down and talk with the seven seniors prior to their regional opener. Following are the questions and some of the answers received during that conversation.
The Early Years
Walsh and Deters started school together in first grade. Beesley came in third grade, while Lawrence and Nuxoll attended St. Anthony Grade School, beginning in sixth grade. As mentioned earlier, Levitt and Runge joined the group in high school.
They have visited each other’s homes, slept over, went on vacations together and played video games for countless hours. There have been hundreds of pick-up basketball games and even more memories collected through the years.
Nuxoll: “Before 6th grade, I first started playing with Adam and Cade on the Effingham Lightning traveling basketball team. We were a small team and got destroyed nearly every single game, but it molded us into what we needed to be. It wasn’t until we got to seventh grade that everything started to really form what everyone sees today.”
Lawrence: “I started playing when I was in sixth grade. These guys were my reason for getting into basketball and I’ve learning the sport with them.”
Deters: “I remember always playing basketball at recess. I remember Cade busted open my mouth open not once, but twice. I dove for a ball and Cade’s (what seemed to be concrete skull) nailed my mouth and I had to get 6 or 7 stitches.”
Beesley: “Our first organized team was in fifth grade. But even before that, we would all play basketball every chance we got at recess. Even our recess games would get intense. We would all come back to class exhausted and sweaty every day. Even in the winter, we would all be playing on the courts with our winter coats and stocking caps on.”
Walsh: “Deters and I have been together since we were babies. Both of us have three older brothers that are all in the same grade. I remember always going over to his house with one of my brothers. Those games were some of the most fun, competitive games I have ever played in and started my love of basketball.”
Levitt, Runge join Bulldogs
Levitt attended Beecher City schools through fifth grade and then went to Effingham for sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
Levitt: “When I was in eighth grade, my dad said he thought there was a bright future for me, both athletically and academically, at St. Anthony. But each time he brought it up, I said no. But during the summer, I attended the St. Anthony Basketball Camp that Coach Rincker hosted. From that day forward, I knew that me and coach would get along great and that St. Anthony was truly where I belonged.
“I still remember my first day. I walked through the front door and the first person to introduce me to everyone was Nick Martelli. He was not a basketball player, but he introduced me to the group – Cade, Deters, Beesley, Jack and Wyatt. I felt like I was accepted into the group right away.”
Runge transferred his sophomore year. Like Levitt, he already knew some of the kids from playing baseball in the summer.
Runge: “I realized what a great group of guys they were and how they all carried themselves. They had a great sense of pride toward St. Anthony, and after some consideration, I decided that I was going to give it a shot.”
“After I found out I had to undergo ankle surgery my junior year, I was very upset, as you can imagine. But when I found out after practice, all the guys drove to my house and played ping pong, air hockey, video games and ate pizza. That showed just how supportive they were and that is when we bonded together.”
How did things change when Coach Rincker was hired?
Nuxoll: “I learned that when you step on the court with him you had to bring 100 percent or he was going to let you know that you need to pick it up. The intensity he brings to practice has definitely helped push us. He is just a great coach.”
Levitt: “When Coach Rincker was hired, they had no idea what was in store for them. I can personally say that his conditioning is absolutely awful and practices are very challenging. But at the end of the day, it’s all for a good cause and hard work pays off. If you don’t give him that maximum effort, he will definitely let you know, which is why he is one of the top coaches to come through the Effingham area.”
Deters: “He brought a new mojo to the St. Anthony program.”
Beesley: “He demands nothing less than 100 percent. He brings so much to this program just through his personality.”
Walsh: “He brought a different culture that completely changed it. He is a very tough-minded, hard-nosed coach that expects discipline and hard work, but at the same time, he’s a player’s coach.”
What makes this team special?
Nuxoll: “Team chemistry.”
Lawrence: “It’s not often seven guys can get together and just click, both on and off the court.”
Deters: “We’ve always hung out together, so it’s easy for us to gel. We know each others’ likes and dislikes.”
Levitt: “Sometimes, we know what each other will do before we even do it. Sometimes, we don’t even have to talk. It just takes a look.”
Beesley: “We’ve known from a young age that we could be successful. We were willing to put in the hard work. And when we’re together playing basketball, we win games.”
What legacy do you want to leave?
Lawrence: “For the underclassmen, including my brother, I hope they remember that we were successful because we worked hard and that we changed this program and lifted it to another level.”
Deters: “I want the underclassmen to see us seven seniors as a group of guys that just loved to play basketball with each other. I want people to remember our class as an unselfish class that looked to make the kid next to them better, rather than themselves. We would rather make the nice pass than to be the one making the bucket.”
Beesley: “I want to leave a legacy that we were just a group of great friends who love to play basketball. We weren’t the most individually talented or crazy athletic. We were able to be successful because we knew how to play together as a team.”
Runge: “I want to leave behind a confidence in all the future players at St. Anthony. You can accomplish your biggest goals if you set your mind to it.”
Walsh: “I would like for the underclassmen and teams after us to use us as an example of a team that only focused on winning and made the sacrifices to do that, such as working hard and giving up individual glory for team glory.”
Levitt: “The legacy I want to leave is hard work and dedication pays off. And no matter how challenging something might be, always fight through it. I want people to remember us as one of the most dedicated and hard-working groups, both athletically and academically.”
Nuxoll: “I want those that look at us from the outside to know we did not do what we did on skill alone. We worked incredibly hard over our basketball careers. I want them to remember us as friends. We are not a group of ballhogs. We share the ball and work to help make each other better.”
As reigning state champs, the Bulldogs have had a bullseye on them from the beginning of the season. They knew every team would be pumped, looking for the opportunity to knock them off. They knew they would get everybody’s best effort.
And if the postseason wasn’t challenging enough, being bumped to Class 2A this year puts yet another challenge in front of them.
But to a player, each one truly believes they have a legitimate chance at making another postseason run.
Whether they play one game or seven in the postseason, the playing careers for these seven young men will come to an end sometime during the next couple weeks.
And then a few months later, they will be staring at high school graduation — one of those milestones in life that offers new opportunities for the future, but requires a big change from the past.
Each of the seven said even graduation will never change their friendship.
Lawrence: “These guys will forever be in my memories. We have a bond that will never break.”
Deters: “It’s going to be a very sad day. I have been around these guys for a while and they have become my brothers. I know we will remain friends forever because no one can break a bond that is this close-knit. I don’t really want to see that day come, but I have countless memories that I will never trade for the world.”
Beesley: “I have no doubt that I will continue to be friends with these guys all of my life.”
Runge: “It will be very hard not being able to see these guys as often as I do now. They have played a huge part in the person I am today.”
Walsh: “The bond I share with these guys is so special. The thought of going away is a bitter pill to swallow. When graduation comes, it will probably be an emotional night. I can easily say that we will remain friends for life.”
Levitt: “We are a very close group of guys and I know we will stay in touch and meet up quite often.”
Nuxoll: “It’s going to be hard. I can assure you tears will be shed. We will leave and go separate ways, but we will never break apart from each other. The bond that we have formed is unbreakable.”
This group of Bulldogs will be remembered for a long time. As state champions, this team will be legendary at St. Anthony.
But they won’t be remembered as stars. They’ll be remembered as friends.
Nuxoll summed it up very well.
“This is so much more than a basketball team. It’s a family. I love these guys.”