By Brian Nielsen
Which do you find more impressive about the Bethalto Civic Memorial girls’ basketball team that matches Mattoon’s 27-5 record heading into those two teams’ Monday night sectional semifinal clash?
• That the Eagles own two wins, 44-35 on Jan. 13 and then 42-34 nine days later for the Highland Tournament championship, over a Teutopolis team that beat Mattoon 38-33 on Jan. 30?
• Or that Civic Memorial has overcome midseason turmoil when its coach and assistant agreed to resign after an investigation and the starting point guard sat out the next game in protest?
This certainly hasn’t been an ordinary season for the Eagles who are to play Mattoon in the second semifinal scheduled for 7:30 p.m. after Mount Vernon faces Highland at 6 to start the IHSA Class 3A Effingham Sectional.
Jonathan Denney, who had 300-120 record including a 15-2 mark to start what was his 17th season as the head coach, was relieved of his duties when the school cited events that happened during the State Farm Classic tournament in late December.
Jeff Ochs, who had just completed his season as the program’s middle school coach, took over the varsity job.
“I think any time you take over halfway through the season it is hard, but one thing that made it less difficult was I coached these girls in middle school so I knew them and they knew me,” Ochs said. “Then again, they weren’t running the same things we are now.”
But Ochs has managed to go 12-3 since moving into the coaching job, including last week’s 60-53 win over East St. Louis for the Troy Triad Regional championship.
Coach Amanda Aydt has seen the Ochs version of the Civic Memorial team her Mattoon girls need to beat to advance to the 7 p.m. Thursday sectional championship match.
“It should be a good game,” Aydt said. “I have watched game films of Civic Memorial. All the teams are good when you get to this point in the season. We are preparing for this game like we have other games. We are going to have to play good, solid team defense and execute our game plan.”
Mattoon is looking to defend a Civic Memorial team led by 5-foot-10 post player Anna Hall, who is averaging 16.7 points per game, and senior point guard Kourtland Tyus, who returned after watching one game in street clothes protesting the coaching change and is now averaging 13.5 points.
Another Civic Memorial player, Jenna Christian, is an NCAA Division I athlete headed to Southern Illinois Edwardsville to play softball.
“I think the word to describe our girls is gritty,” Ochs said. “Our girls work hard. We’ve got a little bit of size and our team is very guard-dominated.”
At least one of those Eagles guards is sure to be focusing on Mattoon sophomore Mallory Ramage, who is averaging 21.7 points per game with .562 shooting on 2-point field-goal attempts and .363 on 157 3-point shots. Ramage also leads the Wave with 4.3 rebounds, 3.6 steals and 2.5 assists per game.
Junior Delainey Bryant adds 10.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
“I know they have a nice guard,” Ochs said of the Wave. “We have several girls who play good defense and buy into defense.”
This is the seventh sectional appearance in eight years for Civic Memorial, missing out two years ago, after winning sectional titles in 2014 and ’17.
This also marks the eighth straight season with 22 or more wins for the Eagles.
Mattoon is back in a sectional after two years away. In 2017 the Wave went 30-2 with a sectional finals berth after winning the program’s first regional championship since 2004.
This current version of the Wave also won an Apollo Conference championship and Pana Thanksgiving and Mattoon Holiday Tournament titles. The Wave had to beat Centralia on Centralia’s court, 45-36, for the latest regional championship.
“We have improved throughout the season and are playing our best basketball right now,” Aydt said. “We have to play our game and do what we do. I am so proud of our team. Our players have worked very hard all year long. They are very coachable, they listen and they go execute. We are ready to play.”