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Article updated: 3/13/2014 8:19 PM
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Twenty years later, Conant's '93-94 team still stands tall
 

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Twenty years later, Conant's '93-94 team still stands tall

Stories of past glory often get embellished.

The tales get taller as the years pass.

Story Continues Below

So, in January when Michael Tierney got ready for the 20-year reunion for the best Conant's boys basketball team in school history, his wife reacted with some skepticism.

The best team ever? She didn't believe it.

Tierney said his wife ultimately came around to understand this wasn't just any team. The 1993-94 Cougars were state-ranked, won 27 games and are the only ones in school history to make the boys basketball Elite Eight.

And the majority of this special group was able to make it back for their reunion that Conant graduate and assistant coach Tony Miller and Pat McCormack, the son of head coach Tom McCormack, helped organize.

"The best part of it was just seeing the guys and talking about old stories," said Tierney, who now lives in Elk Grove.

"It was kind of funny, after spending so many years together, and a lot of us played six-plus years together, to fall right back into the norm with the jabs and inside jokes," said Ryan Johnson, who now lives right down the street from former teammate Dan Loner in Huntley. "Everyone picked up right where we left off."

If they did that on the court, it would be high-flying future Division I players in Rick Kaye and Corey Brown throwing down dunks and 3-pointers. It would be a deep group of long athletes such as Tierney and Johnson fueling a pressure defense that led to eye-popping point totals.

There have been some great teams to come out of the Mid-Suburban League. They include 2001 state champion Schaumburg, the first trophy-winner from Fremd in 1993, a 30-win Elite Eight qualifier at Hoffman Estates in 2004 and the first Elite Eight qualifier from Hersey in 1974.

But the 1994 Conant team is arguably -- and it's one many of us who saw them play believed would win -- the most exciting and electrifying team ever from the MSL.

"I was very fortunate to play in college (Eastern Illinois) and play professionally overseas," said Kaye, who now works and lives in Franklin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville. "Don't get me wrong, those were awesome experiences, but when someone asks what was the most fun I had playing basketball, I always say Conant."

Building the beast

The players on the 1994 Conant team point to their on-court camaraderie as one of the big reasons for their success. Brown, Kaye, Johnson, Tierney, Loner, Rob Cieslinski and Jason Ambroson were part of a senior class that started playing together in middle school.

"We knew what everyone was doing on the court and we had that sixth sense because we had been playing with each other for so long," Kaye said.

"I really think it came from how many years we played together, and how we knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, and the understanding of teamwork at a very young age," Johnson said. "It started with feeder and junior high and then really drilling it in us once we got into high school. To this day those are values I've used through college and professionally.

"We always heard rumors coming into high school ... that some of the coaching staff was looking forward to us coming into school. It came down to the teamwork and dedication of what we wanted to accomplish."

They lost 3 games total as freshmen and sophomores and 7 games as juniors. Their dedication was evident in when and how they practiced.

"You look at the conditioning we did ... he (McCormack) definitely conditioned the heck out of us," Johnson said. "Those 4:30 a.m. practices, that shows tremendous dedication when you wake up at 3:45 or 4 in January because it's snowing and you have to shovel the driveway to get your car out. And you did not want to be late for practice."

With the group of underclassmen coming up, the Cougars were a team McCormack said "had so much depth." Almost everyone in their typical starting lineup was around 6-feet-4 or 6-5, although Cieslinski was hardly a runt at "only" 6-3.

"I was happy to have him on my team," Johnson said with a laugh of the eventual three-year football lineman letterman at Colorado State.

Kaye and Brown had solid college careers at Eastern Illinois and New Orleans respectively. In reserve on the 1993-94 team were underclassmen Jeff Bergmann (Davidson) and Jeremy Roach (Northern Illinois).

Rob Schader was Conant's starting quarterback and an excellent baseball player. Bergmann (long jump) and Ambroson (shot put) were two-time placewinners in the state track and field meet.

So, the basketball skill, size and athleticism was in place. But Kaye still wasn't sure something truly special was in the making until early in that season.

"We went in there thinking we had a pretty good team," Kaye said. "Then we started playing and beating a lot of people by a lot of points, and we looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we have a really good, really athletic team.' "

Making it all work

Talented teams sometimes struggle with the fact that there is only one basketball to go around. But McCormack said everyone knew their roles and that Kaye and Brown, who both averaged more than 20 points, were at their best when everyone was involved.

"Everyone got along really well and we never looked at the stat sheet," Kaye said.

"With that many good players, to get guys to share the ball, and you see it in college and the pros all the time, can sometimes be a problem," McCormack said. "It was a testament to them the way they were able to mesh together."

Johnson and Tierney understood that if they played on other teams, they could have scored more than the combined 20-plus points a game they usually provided, but it wasn't going to happen here.

They all knew they could and would get plenty of chances in a hurry off their various zone and man-to-man defensive pressure alignments.

"That team could really turn teams over and turn it into points in a hurry," McCormack said. "They could do it either way. They could outscore you or really throw some defense at you."

And a team that went through the regular season 22-2 -- the losses to Naperville North in the final of East Aurora's Christmas tournament and in overtime at Schaumburg -- seemed even more intimidating on its home floor with packed houses and the rocking Conant Showband.

"It was almost like an event," Kaye said.

"To have that support around you just puts fuel on the fire to get you motivated and get you going," Johnson said.

Now they would try to go where no Conant boys basketball team had gone before.

The run to history and Champaign

After a crowd-wowing MSL title win at Hersey, which went to the Elite Eight the following year, Conant started a drive to Champaign that contained a few obstacles.

The Cougars had to pull a regional final overtime escape over Elk Grove and big man Tim Gera when Brown didn't play. They squeaked past Streamwood in the sectional semifinal at Elgin but lost Tierney for the season when he tore three ligaments in his left ankle.

"I've always had to fight that demon," Tierney said, "that I worked all those years and did not even fulfill my goal and dream of getting and playing downstate."

The rest of the Cougars did, however, by avenging their only losses. They took care of Schaumburg in the sectional final to make the Sweet 16 for the third time in school history.

This time they broke through as they beat Naperville North, with future Major League Baseball player Jerry Hairston Jr., 69-56 in the supersectional at Northern Illinois University's Evans Field House. Kaye scored 25 and Cieslinski helped make up for the loss of Tierney with 17 points and 8 rebounds.

"We knew by then we could beat them and we had a great team," Johnson said. "Everything that night just clicked for us."

It continued early in the Friday night Class AA quarterfinal at Illinois' Assembly Hall against Lyons, which was trying to extend the legendary career of retiring coach Ron Nikcevich a little longer. The Cougars roared out with a 24-point first quarter.

But they couldn't sustain their start and fell 59-51 despite 19 points from Brown and 15 from Kaye. The heartbreaking part for Tierney was watching from the sideline while wearing a walking boot.

"My personal feeling is if I had played that game, we could've, should've, would've beaten Lyons at the very least if I played. One thing I vividly remember is a lot of guys were hesitant to shoot and," Tierney said with a laugh, "that was never an issue for me."

So, there would be no semifinal shot at Carbondale on Saturday. And no chance to potentially take on a Peoria Manual team that started its historic run of four consecutive state titles that weekend.

"It's funny, but at the time I don't think we realized how athletic or how good we were," Kaye said. "When you look back years later, we were a really, really good team. We were probably the most gifted, athletic team in the state and probably should have won state that year."

But it was still an unforgettable and memorable year for Kaye, who played professionally overseas for 2½ years after earning all-conference honors twice at Eastern Illinois.

"Playing overseas was more of a job and even in college, and I was lucky to get a full scholarship, you look at it as your job," Kaye said. "In high school, it's just kind of your buddies playing basketball."

At a high-flying level that was a sight to behold.

Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at marty.maciaszek@gmail.com.

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