DECATUR — Zone defense and the St. Teresa boys basketball have become synonymous during Tom Noonan's tenure as head coach.
The defense has reaped rewards for the Bulldogs season after season.
But this year, as the regular season was winding down, Noonan had to abandon the defense after senior Cayden Brilley suffered a hand injury.
Noonan and his coaching staff talked about implementing spurts of man-to-man defense against Warrensburg-Latham in the season finale and in regionals, but Brilley's injury forced Noonan into a full-time switch.
Still, the Bulldogs beat Warrensburg-Latham and went on to win the school's first boys basketball regional championship since the 2014-15 season that culminated in a Class 2A state runner-up finish.
The Bulldogs won four tournaments; the Macon County Tournament, the Team Soy Christmas Tournament, the Central Illinois Conference Tournament and the Class 2A Tuscola Regional, were co-champions of the CIC regular season and finished 22-7.
As a result, Noonan is the Macon County Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
“When Cayden Brilley broke his hand, we had to re-create ourselves," Noonan said. "...Our guys did a really good job at executing in our man-to-man after not playing it for most of the year."
When the season began, Noonan thought his team had a chance to be good by the end of the year, but the beginning could have been a struggle.
Senior Beau Branyan dedicated his summer to football — he has since signed to play at Southern Illinois University. Michael Less was expected to be a key contributor as a sophomore and Tyler Phillips needed to step into a big role despite limited varsity team in the previous season.
St. Teresa lost the season opener to Champaign St. Thomas More, but romped through the Macon County Tournament to the championship game and beat Central A&M for the title.
Four days later, the Bulldogs completed a drubbing of Pleasant Plains.
Noonan knew he had something.
“Our guys really impressed me with our pre-Christmas play by winning the county and taking care of Pleasant Plains on the road by 17," Noonan said. "That was the game that our guys said, ‘OK, we can be pretty good.’”
The plaques only backed up his notions.
Each tournament win came with a family memento. After the players and coaching staff posed with the plaques for a photo, or several, Noonan sat the plaque in front of his 10-month-old son Charlie for a picture.
As the season wore on, the pictures of Charlie with a plaque started to add up and provided the coach with a sense of relief.
Admittedly in past seasons when the Bulldogs went through tough stretches, Noonan fretted.
He could have done the same this year when St. Teresa played nine games in 15 days and suffered two losses, but Charlie offered a more comforting view.
"I’m pretty competitive with everything," Noonan said. "No matter what happened at the end of the game, to be able to go over and have him reach out to you put everything in perspective."
Even after the grueling stretch that included losses to Peoria Quest Charter Academy, which played in a sectional championship game, and Bloomington Central Catholic, which finished third in Class 2A and ended St. Teresa's season, the Bulldogs came out with a 15-4 record ahead of the conference tournament.
“That was the time that we didn’t practice much," Noonan said of the stretch. "If we did practice, it was a glorified walk-through. We got in such a habit of playing games that games weren’t as special. ... but we ended up having a good record at the end of it."
In the regional title game, St. Teresa beat Meridian for the fourth time this season to advance to the Class 2A Maroa Sectional, where Bloomington Central Catholic used a big second half to dispatch St. Teresa.
After the loss, Noonan didn't beat his head into a wall wondering, "What if?" Instead he reflected on how the experience was valuable for the underclassmen who took on big minutes this season.
“There’s some years where you feel really, really bad at the end of the year," Noonan said. "This is a credit to BCC, nothing against our guys, they were a better team this year. It was really, really good for our freshmen, sophomores and juniors to see what a sectional was like. It’s going to help our younger guys as we head into the summer."
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