The situation seemed ideal for Dan Denton.
A 2 1/2-hour drive. A scenery-free stretch of interstate.
Plenty of time and minimal distractions in his quest to come up with the perfect words to honor a special team.
But by the time Denton completed his journey from his home just south of Kankakee to the small south-central Illinois town where he enjoyed the most memorable season of his 32-year coaching career, the perfect words had yet to materialize.
It wasn’t for lack of material, though. Quite the opposite.
‘I was trying to think of the one thing that I could say that hadn’t already been said,’ said Denton of the moments before he addressed a crowd gathered Friday to honor the 20th anniversary of St. Elmo’s 1988 fourth-place state tournament team. ‘I honestly didn’t know what I was going to say.’
And, in all fairness to Denton, where do you start?
There was the Eagles’ improbable run through the Vandalia Sectional to consider – two fingernail-eliminating affairs that ended in the program’s first and second-ever sectional victories.
He probably could have spent the whole speech talking about Kevin Maxey’s miraculous 40-foot shot in latter game, an answered prayer that downed a heavily favored and equally stunned Trenton Wesclin team.
And there was the Eagles’ Charleston Super-Sectional victory over NTC rival T-Town, another impossibly close contest against a favored opponent – one that ended in another one-point Eagles win.
There were countless similar victories during the regular season that prepared the Eagles for the ride. And there was the bittersweet finale to the Eagles’ remarkable 28-4 season, an overtime loss to Melrose Park that still seemed triumphant, in a sense, as the Eagles walked off the floor Champaign’s Assembly Hall with a fourth-place state trophy in hand.
There were, simply stated, countless memories running through Denton’s head prior to Friday’s NTC matchup between St. Elmo and Stew-Stras – memories that remain vivid some 20 years later, yet are too plentiful to summarize in a five-minute speech.
So Denton wound up winging it.
But that didn’t keep the members of that team from fighting back tears as their former coach spoke.
His words were unscripted but prophetic.
‘I was proud to be associated with this team then, and I still am today,’ Denton said.
… They set the bar for St. Elmo basketball.’
That sky-high bar includes a school-record 28 wins in addition to a plethora of program firsts, including:
The program’s first National Trail Conference title in 47 years.
Its first regional title in 15 years.
The Eagles’ first-ever sectional victory.
And the program’s first and only state appearance.
‘They didn’t put St. Elmo on the map,’ Denton added, ‘but they elevated it and inspired an entire community.’
The leading scorer from that team, current Eagles coach Greg Feezel, seemed particularly taken by his mentor’s words.
‘We’ve had many-hour talks with that guy, and that just brought back a lot of memories,’ Feezel said.
Looking back, the 1987-88 Eagles still seem as shocked that it all happened as they are amazed that its already been 20 years since the dream season.
‘I can’t even fathom it’s been 20 years,’ said Ed Moss, who joined his brother Ted, Feezel and Maxey in the starting lineup that year. ‘I don’t think it really hits you until you’re five years, six years away from it. Then you realize how special it was.
‘It was really neat to be part of something so special. … You really can’t put a finger on it. …
Though the formula for the Eagles’ success is tough to summarize, it didn’t simply ‘just happen.’
The Eagles entered the ’87-88 season a capable and experienced bunch, fronted by a solid core of contributors back from a 22-win campaign – one of the program’s most successful in years.
But the team’s drive and ambition far exceeded its considerable talent, fueled by the memories of an ’86-87 season marred by a number of second-place finishes and woulda-coulda-shoulda moments.
‘They weren’t satisfied,’ Denton said. ‘They came back absolutely ready to turn that corner.’
The Eagles were driven to get over the hump – and they were fortunate enough to have a coach that was willing to push them as far as they wanted to go.
‘He’d jump on us and chew us right now if he had a reason to,’ said Feezel of Denton’s old-school coaching style. ‘We all respect that. And I think once players respect their coach and what he wants done, you’ve got a team that would just about do anything.
‘We were a bunch that would run through a brick wall for that guy. He knew that. He knew which buttons to push and when to push them.’
The focused and determined Eagles raced out to an 18-2 start. Still, the Eagles felt they hadn’t quite arrived until a memorable February night against T-Town at SEHS.
‘We came away with a five-point win in that game, and I’m telling you, everyone of the players – and myself included – walked out of here like a weight had just been lifted off our shoulders,’ said Denton of the Eagles first win over T-Town in over four decades.
‘It had been maybe 40-some years since we had beaten T-Town,’ Ed Moss said. ‘To beat a team like that was really quite an accomplishment. You knew if you could play with them, you could play with anybody.’
The victory clinched the NTC regular-season title, and effectively launched the Eagles into the stratosphere.
‘We didn’t lose again until the state tournament,’ Denton said. ‘I think that (T-Town win) was the biggest turning point right there.’
The region soon became fixated on the Eagles, and there was plenty to like.
For one, despite their gaudy record, the Eagles always seemed to play the role of the underdog.
‘People liked to attach themselves to us,’ Denton said.
And, despite being led by capable scoring threats such as Feezel and Maxey, the Eagles didn’t feature and true superstars.
‘Those guys were killer,’ said Moss of Feezel and Maxey. ‘But, ultimately, there were a lot of contributors. We didn’t necessarily care who scored the points. It was a team effort.’
Synergy certainly was the Eagles’ strong suit. The sum of their various parts – the Moss brothers, Feezel, Maxey, part-time starters Robbie Heckert and Pat Mattis, and reserves Randy Heckert, Ian Moore, Brandon Kimberlin, Marc Scholes and Matt Weaber – were greater as a group than they were individually.
‘We had a lot of good chemistry,’ Ed Moss said. ‘We were just fortunate that we had a good group of guys who gelled very well.’
That was evident in the way Denton’s team shared the ball, which drew in fans from all corners of the region.
‘People would say, ‘You know why I love coming out watching you guys?’ Denton recalled. ‘Because you are so efficient and quick passing the basketball.”
And – as Trenton Wesclin and T-Town discovered in the postseason – the Eagles had a killer instinct that was unrelenting.
Case in point: The Vandalia Sectional title game. With less than 10 seconds to go and heavily favored Wesclin leading 59-57, Maxey dribbled just past the half-court line and launched a 40-foot prayer. It was answered.
‘We had a lot of lady luck on our side,’ Feezel conceded, with Maxey’s shot in mind. ‘The basketball gods were smiling on us quite often, too.’
‘The shot’ established Maxey as a household name in St. Elmo, and the equivalent of a four-letter word in Trenton.
‘His wife has done some work there at Wesclin,’ Denton said of Maxey, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave St. Elmo a 60-59 win, ‘and they still know him down there.’
Despite the win, the Eagles entered the Charleston Super-Sectional as underdogs against T-Town. And, after falling into an early hole against the Wooden Shoes, the role seemed apropos.
But, with the majority of a capacity crowd at Lantz Gym behind them, the Eagles rallied once again.
‘Those kids got down 7 or 8, and it could have been a great season, and they could have folded up,’ Denton said. ‘But we kept plugging away, and they let us hang around, and we got them at the wire.’
St. Elmo wound up clinching a state-tournament berth with a 54-53 win.
‘It was just typical of how they responded of challenges,’ Denton said. ‘They just would not quit.’
Maxey achieved temporary rock-star status in the Eagles state-tournament opener, going for 31 points in a win over Forreston, as television audiences marveled at the diminutive 5-foot-8 guard’s scoring ability.
But an off shooting night proved too much to overcome in a semifinal loss to eventual champion Pana. The Eagles remarkable season then ended with an overtime loss to Melrose Park in the third-place game.
Despite coming up short of the ultimate prize, the season remains a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Denton.
‘Again, I said it 20 years ago, I didn’t ever know if I was going to get an opportunity like I did,’ Denton said. ‘The good Lord was good to me, bringing me a group like this, that just absolutely was a pleasure to coach.’
As proud as Denton was 20 years ago, he’s even more proud with how his former players have turned out as adults.
‘I had great people that turned out to be great people and great parents,’ Denton said. ‘It’s a pleasure to see them again.’