School, community pride as important to Larkin as winning
Wednesday was not your normal day at Larkin High School.
The entire school took on a little different air, courtesy of the Royals' boys basketball team, which defeated Benet Academy 53-46 Tuesday night in the Class 4A supersectional at NIU to become the first team in school history to advance to a state final basketball tournament.
"There's definitely electricity and a buzz to what's going on," Royals coach Deryn Carter told statewide media during Thursday's IHSA conference call just after noon.
You could sense that buzz hadn't worn off yet at practice later in the afternoon, from the players to the coaches, as they got ready to put the euphoria aside and get to work on how they can conquer mighty Belleville West in Friday night's first state semifinal at Carver Arena in Peoria.
"I slept a little bit but I still have that rush and I think everyone does," said senior Anthony Lynch, who scored 16 points in Tuesday's win. "The first announcement of the day was that we won and it was great. The eyes keep getting wider and wider and it's more exciting every day. You cherish coming to practice more and more."
"A lot of people are happy and we're happy. It's a good thing," said senior Jalen Shaw, who on Tuesday had 11 rebounds and 2 blocked shots to go with 5 points and who gave props to his mom, Lisa, for being his No. 1 fan. "It's settled in. I've been ready for this moment since the beginning of the season. We made team goals and from the beginning one of them was to go to state."
This is no small thing for Larkin, and for the city of Elgin. It's been 20 years since a boys basketball team from an Elgin school has made it to a state final tournament. In fact, since Jim Harrington's 1997-98 Elgin team played in Peoria, only one other team has made it to the Elite Eight -- Mike Sitter's 2007-08 Elgin team, which was the first year of four class basketball and Elite Eight teams were supersectional teams and not state finalists.
In fact, throw out all the class changes and this Larkin team is the first from the city to play in a state semifinal since Elgin in 1955.
"It means a lot," said Lynch, a lifelong resident of South Elgin and Elgin. "This town has a lot of tradition and is very close. Elgin and Larkin have a lot of tradition and people worship that. It brings everyone together. It's something to look forward to and support and we want to give that back this weekend. We just have to get back to being focused. We're excited but we also have to stay humble."
No one person at Larkin knows more about the tradition than Carter, a Larkin grad who scored over 1,000 points as a Royal. A lot of people wondered why he took the job back in 2009. The program was in disarray and then won 5 games in his first two seasons. Well, there hasn't been a losing season since and Carter is now 143-117 in his tenure at his alma mater.
"There's a lot of pride in being able to take the program from where it was to where it is now," Carter said. "I'm still pinching myself a little. I used to not like having that Elgin in front of Larkin because we were Larkin. But now I kind of like having that Elgin in front of Larkin. There's a lot of pride to it, a lot of community pride. I'm very proud to bring it back to Elgin, but even prouder to have it on the west side."
As their coach, it's up to Carter to get the Royals focused on business, but he also wants them to enjoy the experience.
"The fun thing about setting goals is you have to work to get them but when you do it's time to enjoy it. You have to enjoy the moment when it happens," he said.
Even though Carter hasn't coached a team at state, he's no stranger to the experience. His sister, Corry, has won three state championships and taken 10 Whitney Young girls teams to state. Carter's brother-in-law, Nick Irvin, has won three Class 3A state titles at Morgan Park and has his Mustangs in Peoria again this weekend. Carter said there were many text messages and emails back and forth between he, Corry and Nick Wednesday.
But one of the guys who this may mean the most to is Carter's dad, Deryl, who has assisted Corry on many of the Young teams, and who is also a volunteer assistant for Deryn.
"It's been one of my dreams since Deryn took over here," Deryl Carter said Wednesday. "I'm just blessed that both my kids want me with them."
Just as the Larkin basketball team, not to mention the entire Elgin community, is blessed to have the Carters leading the Royals this weekend to the IHSA's Big Dance.