Why this trip to state is so much sweeter for Sacred Heart-Griffin basketball

Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register
The Sacred Heart-Griffin boys basketball team celebrates its Class 3A Springfield Supersectional on Monday, March 7, 2022 at the Bank of Springfield Center.

Two years ago, Bob Hamilton went to Papa Frank's restaurant just after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped away Sacred Heart-Griffin's trip to the Class 2A boys basketball state finals. The father of twin players Jake and Will Hamilton described it as “like going to a wake.” 

Losing the chance to play in the state finals in that way was tougher than any loss, SHG junior Zack Hawkinson said. 

“The tears,” Hawkinson recalled most from that trip to the restaurant on Wabash Avenue. “That one hurt so bad, we thought we had a great chance and for it to just be taken away from us. And it wasn't even in our control.” 

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On Monday, on the Bank of Springfield Center floor, Hamilton described the euphoria of the Cyclones' Class 3A state finals qualification like the birth of his oldest son, Charlie Hamilton. 

Hamilton, his wife, State Rep. Sandy Hamilton, R-Springfield, and that first-born son were on hand Monday as his twin sons, Hawkinson and the rest of the SHG basketball team knocked off East St. Louis, 60-50, to earn a trip to the Class 3A state finals on Friday.

Now, the Cyclones (33-3) will play Chicago St. Ignatius (23-12) at 10 a.m. Friday at the State Farm Center in Champaign in the 3A semifinals.

Sacred Heart-Griffin juniors KeShon Singleton (left) and J'veon Bardwell (right) celebrate in the closing moments of the Cyclones' 60-50 win over East St. Louis in the Class 3A Springfield Supersectional on Monday, March 7 at the Bank of Springfield Center.

Nothing is guaranteed

It’s too easy for fans — or even media — to make assumptions about the ease of a team’s path to success based on previous seasons. When Rochester won five straight football state championships from 2010-14, it was easy to go ahead and assume the Rockets would be back in 2015. They weren't.

Or, even a more recent example: SHG’s football team, loaded with juniors, brought home a Class 4A state runner-up trophy in November. It isn’t a reach to assume the Cyclones will be the odds-on favorite for a football state championship later this year.  

But it’s a bad idea to put those pressures on a bunch of high school athletes. Past results should not be a guarantee of future successes. And, when a team is on the verge of doing something for the first time in school history — like guaranteed to bring home its first top-four state trophy — it’s really unwise. 

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Still, SHG brought back much of the 2020 team for another run in 2021. However, the still-raging pandemic forced the Illinois High School Association to go without a postseason for most sports during the 2020-21 school year. Basketball was included in that. So even the then-seniors on the SHG team wouldn’t have a chance to prove 2020 wasn’t a fluke. 

The faces on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center aren’t new to Cyclones’ fans. Six of the seven current juniors — J’veon Bardwell, KeShon Singleton, the currently-injured Ty Lott, Hawkinson and the Hamilton twins — were on the roster in 2020 as freshmen. Jake Hamilton was a starter, while Singleton and Hawkinson were in coach Tim Allen’s rotation.  

Sacred Heart-Griffin junior Jake Hamilton after a whistle during SHG's 60-50 win to qualify for the Class 3A state tournament, Monday, March 7, 2022, at the Bank of Springfield Center.

The pain from 2020 still weighs on the minds of those still on the team. Bardwell knows he cannot take anything for granted. 

“I (was) thinking: We got to make it back,” Bardwell said. “And when we do, time can’t be wasted. You never know what's going to be taken away from you, so we got to win; we’ve got to do everything we can and put all the effort in to win.” 

Remembering 2020's team

The players wore team shirts made for the 2020 state tournament to the convention center on Monday. Names of since-graduated players — Kyle Ingram, Jack Thoma, Isaiah Thompson, Sam Antonacci, Andrew Schluter, Noah Newton, Elliott Green, Henry Salvo and Reid Taylor — adorned the back.  

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It doesn’t appear anything will stop the 2022 state finals. The girls finals in Normal went off last weekend without a hitch. Even masks aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were.  

SHG will play in a state finals for the first time since the school was known as Cathedral. Cathedral competed at state three times — 1942, ‘46 and 48 — but didn’t bring home a trophy. The Cyclones are guaranteed one, even with a fourth-place finish.  

“It feels amazing,” Singleton said. “I mean, it's what we worked for. We're going to get to the State Farm Center and we’ve got to do all we have to do to be prepared for it and get the wins.” 

Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.