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Several banners hang inside the St. Malachy gymnasium walls.
Some are newer, with their kelly green color not fading away, mixing in nicely with the white letters and numerals.
Others are older, a bit frayed around the edges, yellowing out with the passing of time.
But all the banners have one common theme.
They display the success various St. Malachy athletic programs have had throughout the years.
Nestled in along Grove Avenue just before downtown Rantoul and across the street from several homes, the tiny Catholic school, with its nondescript exterior, doesn’t seem like the place for a junior high school girls basketball powerhouse. But that’s just what the Tigers have produced the last two years.
And soon, they’ll put another banner up inside that gymnasium. Probably right next to the one that is the freshest-looking of them all.
That banner celebrates the 2011 St. Malachy’s seventh-grade girls basketball team’s Class 1A state runner-up finish.
The 2012 eighth-grade girls basketball team’s 1A state runner-up finish will look right at home.
A preview of greatness
Jeff McKaufsky had an inkling this might happen.
The postseason hardware.
The police and fire truck escorts into and out of town.
Before he assumed the duties of Rantoul Township High School girls basketball head coach in the summer of 2010, McKaufsky coached the Tigers.
“A couple of those girls came to St. Malachy in sixth grade, so I helped out a little bit before I started my first year (at RTHS),” McKaufsky said. “I could see that there was talent. In fifth grade, some of them were playing meaningful minutes on the seventh-grade team, so I knew there was going to be something special there.”
Special indeed. When the Tigers lost the 1A state championship game to Atwood-Hammond on Dec. 13, it was only their third defeat in the past two seasons for the group that went a combined 49-3 during the two-year run.
All three losses came to eventual state champions — once during this year’s eighth-grade season against Danville Schlarman, which won the seventh-grade 1A state championship a few weeks ago — and the other came in last year’s 1A seventh-grade state championship game to Atwood-Hammond.
“Everything was leading up to playing Atwood-Hammond again this year,” said Kristy Brandon, who helped assist head coach Bob Bolton this season after Bolton was the squad’s only coach a year ago. “I came in not knowing what to expect, but our goal was we wanted them to be better than they were when they started the season.”
Core to work with
A 26-1 record during their seventh-grade season brought heightened attention to what the Tigers might accomplish in 2012.
“We had a lot of pressure with people knowing we went to state last year,” guard Rachel Daugherty said, “and that they wanted us to go to state again this year.”
St. Malachy and Bolton received welcome news when Anna Worley transferred to St. Malachy from Prairieview-Ogden Junior High before the school year.
The Royal resident wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the Tigers were glad to see her on the court with them.
“It helped out a lot,” forward Grayson Carver said. “It was another bigger girl for us to have because all of us compared to Anna are little. She was a good addition.”
Worley, Carver, forward Kayonna Bufford and forward Kaia Bowen gave Bolton a solid core to work with. The fifth player who would help make the Tigers go held a special place in Bolton’s heart: his daughter Andie.
The guard was a catalyst on offense for the Tigers, creating off the dribble or knocking down open shots.
How did the younger Bolton view the unique player-coach relationship?
“Sometimes it was cool,” she said. “He could teach me outside of the gym, and we could talk about what we were going to do.”
Other times, not so cool.
“Sometimes it was bad,” she said with a laugh. “He made me run a lot because he expected me to do better.”
Coaches played role, too
It wasn’t just the play of Andie Bolton, Bowen, Bufford, Carver and Worley that made the Tigers a formidable opponent.
The coaching of Bob Bolton and Brandon affected the squad, too. Coaching doesn’t have to just come with teaching a player the proper mechanics on how to shoot a basketball or what offense to run.
“I’m going to remember Bob because he was just crazy,” guard Jessica Padilla said with a laugh, “and Kristy because she was a good coach.”
If it was dressing up like a pirate for Halloween (Bob Bolton did that last year) or passing out Halloween candy to the other team during a game (Bob Bolton did that this year), St. Malachy’s head coach wanted to keep his players loose and relaxed.
“He’s not so serious all the time,” Carver said in an understatement.
Bob Bolton wasn’t just the jokester, though.
A stickler for details, he provided a brief glimpse back to how coaches were when Brandon played sports at Rantoul Township High School in the late 1980s.
“When I was an athlete, you did what the coaches said,” Brandon said. “I liked his style of coaching because that’s what I was used to. He’ll tell you all the time that he’s not a coach and just a parent, but I learned a lot from him this year.”
“He’s awesome,” she said. “He can get mad at us, but then he teaches us.”
And the players learned from Brandon, too.
“I’m going to miss all my teammates, Bob and Kristy saying, ‘Hands up, for the sweet love of Jesus!’” Worley said. “And she’d always say ‘Attaboy girl!’”
The banter the two coaches shared back and forth almost seem like it’s a planned comedy routine. But, both insist, it’s just the way they interact with each other. Case in point: Bob’s ever-present black shorts he wears while he coaches.
“I had been at two practices at this point, and I’m like, ‘Are those swim trunks?’” Brandon said with a laugh before Bolton quickly brought up her bedazzled attire.
“I wear all the shorts,” he said. “She wears all the bling.”
Both are competitive people who strive to win just as badly as their players. Case in point: Brandon’s bench activity during the season.
“There were kids that had to hold her on the bench so she wouldn’t stand,” Bolton said. “That was their job.”
Brandon nods to confirm the authenticity of this topic.
“Whoever was sitting next to me had to do it,” she said. “If you asked a girl sitting next to me what their job was it was, ‘To watch the game and keep you down.’ They would keep me at my seat.”
The road to state didn’t veer much for St. Malachy. Or far from its home gymnasium until the state quarterfinals.
The Tigers hosted a 1A regional and 1A sectional championship game.
The Tigers made sure a large crowd would be on hand after breezing past Buckley St. John’s 37-21 in a regional semifinal game on Nov. 29 before beating Champaign Holy Cross 27-20 in the regional championship game a day later on Nov. 30.
A 26-16 victory against Armstrong-Ellis in the sectional championship game on Dec. 5 assured the Tigers would spend at least part of that upcoming Saturday at Clinton Junior High School, the venue for the Elite Eight.
A loss to Bourbonnais Maternity BVM in the state quarterfinals would make for an abrupt exit. Most of the Tigers were in the same position last year. But not all.
“I was really excited, but I was really nervous,” Worley said of making her state tournament debut. “I was shaking. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go because I wasn’t sure if I would play bad or play good or if my nerves would get to me. I kept on praying that I would do good, and I did.”
Worley had eight points to complement 10 points from Andie Bolton, and the Tigers were assured of finishing no worse than fourth in state.
A 29-19 semifinal victory later on Dec. 8 against Springfield Little Flower found St. Malachy back in the state championship game for the second straight year against a familiar foe in Atwood-Hammond.
More than three weeks have passed since the Tigers’ 28-22 loss to Atwood-Hammond.
“This year I felt like I was coaching for them to get back (to the state championship game) so they could redeem themselves,” Bob Bolton said.
St. Malachy didn’t even its series with Atwood-Hammond, but the Tigers did get to experience all the trappings of playing for a state championship again.
The afternoon pep rally the day of the game. The caravan of cars. The fire trucks’ blinking lights and loud horns leading the team bus out of town.
“It was really awesome because it was something new that we had never gotten to see (before seventh grade),” forward Shelby Sisk said. “Most kids don’t get to have (that feeling) at all. It was kind of like the same (as last year), but I was excited because I got to see it again.”
The fan support not only from the community and their parents, but from their fellow students at St. Malachy, is a memory all the players will take with them moving forward.
“They were always there for us,” Bufford said. “If we needed anything, they were there for us.”
Even if that meant dressing up in outlandish costumes typically seen at college or high school basketball games from student sections.
“A bunch of boys got (full-body) suits, and that was crazy,” Andie Bolton said. “For state, they all got giant hats and weird hair. Everyone, as a community, joined together to cheer us on.”
Some of the players — Carver, Sisk, Padilla, Gabby Skipping-Gill and Shantel Smith — might become teammates later in high school at RTHS.
Andie Bolton said she is planning to attend St. Thomas More, Worley is heading to St. Joseph-Ogden while Bufford is undecided at this point.
Bowen, Daugherty and Lucy Rulon are all in seventh grade and have at least another year to make up their minds about high school.
“I know high school is going to be way different,” Bufford said. “I’m just looking forward to basketball in high school. I’m excited. We play with different girls from everywhere, so that’s exciting to meet new people and play basketball.”
With a larger squad this season — last year’s state runner-up team only had eight players — the ability to mesh the different personalities and skill levels on the team also played a role in the success St. Malachy was able to sustain this season.
“If something happened in school or during the day, we’d have moments where it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ but at the end of the day we care about each other,” Carver said. “We have faith in each other. We treat each other like family.”
Family that helped achieve new heights in girls basketball at St. Malachy.
Prior to their arrival, the Tigers had reached the state quarterfinals twice in 2006 and 2007, only to lose their first game.
Now, the newest banner that will hang in St. Malachy’s gymnasium will look fresh with its kelly green color and white lettering.
Even as this banner frays and yellows, the memories this group made on and off the basketball court will endure. That’s something time can never take away.
“I’m going to remember all of us getting close to each other,” Smith said. “We had good days and bad days, but we would all still be together.”