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AREA BOYS BASKETBALL COACH OF THE YEAR: Lincoln's Neil Alexander
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AREA BOYS BASKETBALL COACH OF THE YEAR: Lincoln's Neil Alexander

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Lincoln head coach Neil Alexander will always wonder "what if" when he thinks of this team that went 32-2 and ran roughshod over opponents before the postseason was cancelled because the COVID-19 pandemic.

LINCOLN — Every year after a season ends, Neil Alexander calls his seniors in for a meeting. The conversations are run-of-the-mill, centered around their careers and how fast four years can go. 

After 43 years as a head basketball coach and the third-most coaching wins in IHSA history, Alexander — Lincoln's boys basketball coach — can craft the message perfectly. The meetings ended and it was on to the next team, the next players and the next push for a state championship.

This season had the makings of a run to Peoria. But the end came before anyone expected it to because of the COVID-19 pandemic that stopped the IHSA postseason before the Railers could host Springfield Lanphier in a Class 3A sectional championship game.

Suddenly, the team that went 32-2 had no more games. In the games they did play, the Railers were dominant, with the only two losses coming in overtime and just one regular-season win decided by fewer than 10 points. They outscored opponents by an average of 23.6 point per game, earning Alexander the Herald & Review Area Boys Basketball Coach of the Year for the fourth time.

Even still, after 43 years, Alexander is facing the fact that he's not going to coach forever. He's not done, but an abrupt, unprecedented end is more challenging to absorb when a team like this doesn't get to live out its own destiny.

“I’m to the age now, not that we never have another chance, but this was a pretty good chance to get to the state finals," Alexander said. "... There for awhile, there was no end in sight for me as a coach. Now I’m getting to the point where I talk to the kids and it’s like, ‘Is this my last year?’ It’s getting pretty close."

This senior group, headlined by Kaden Froebe, Will Ewald and Kameron Whiteman, had been on the coaching staff's radar for years. They were good as eighth-graders and freshmen — not the biggest, bulkiest group, but skilled. They lost one game as sophomores and kept winning as juniors and seniors.

Each player was nearly a mirror image of one another, a group of coach's kids who could shoot, defend, dribble-drive and fit perfectly into Alexander's system. They grew to 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4 interchangeable parts. Occasionally the coaches wondered how they would guard bigger teams, but Alexander also knew they had to ask another question: "How are they going to guard us?"

“I just thought all along that this was a pretty special group that was playing together," Alexander said. "I’ve had the feelings about this group for a long time. ... Their intelligence on how to play and how we play, unselfish and the group, all five of those starters could all dribble-drive, they could all shoot the 3, all have a mid-range game, they all were great passers and saw the floor well and I think were very unselfish. 

“All those combinations just fit into our program so well."

It's been more than four weeks since the Railers had their final practice on a Thursday night, but it doesn't get any easier for Alexander to absorb. The environment in the gym would have been electric for the sectional championship game against Lanphier, similar to an epic 2014 clash that Lincoln won on their way to a second-place finish in state.

“I think for some of our other kids, advancing into the state tournament, the farther we went, the opportunity that people would have been able to see them," Alexander said "I think our kids got hurt because of that. I think that was the big thing because they’re all wanting to play basketball. I think this team would have been, from the fans' standpoint, would have loved to see them play. ...

“That’s what our kids play for at Roy S., at the gym, is a game like that (against Lanphier), and that would have been another one like we had in ‘14 with that team that placed second. It would have been rafter to rafter. That’s the experience that I think all of our kids are looking forward to playing in."

Four weeks after the fact and things aren't easier to process. Some of the players have created a "32-2, unfinished business," or a, "No finish line," mantra to how the season ended. There are going to be more meetings for Alexander and he'll prepare for the next season like he has for 43 years. There's always going to be a "what if" factor to this Lincoln team. Maybe there was just one more game left, maybe not.

That's what claws at the core. There's no way to know.

“We felt really good," Alexander said. "We thought we were playing exceptionally well. The kids were really focused. You just never know but I sure would have loved to play the games to see what the outcome would have been. I liked our chances. I thought we were good enough to win a few more games."


PHOTOS: Lincoln advances to Class 3A sectional championship that was never played

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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