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St. Francis boy basketball to salute magical 1988-89 season

St. Francis High School history teacher and former head boys basketball coach Mike Harper stands with the IHSA Class A fourth-place trophy the school earned under his leadership in 1989.
St. Francis High School history teacher and former head boys basketball coach Mike Harper stands with the IHSA Class A fourth-place trophy the school earned under his leadership in 1989.

The sense of deflation was unmistakable among the St. Francis faithful.

The Spartans’ boys basketball team’s exhilarating postseason push into a Class A sectional semifinal was about to come to an end, with Walther Lutheran in control in the closing seconds.

But Walther Lutheran clanked three free throws in the final 10 seconds, leading to a miraculous, last-second shot from near halfcourt that turned Dan Lenert into a Spartans’ immortal. St. Francis won the game, 61-59, the most unforgettable moment in what stands as the lone season ending with a downstate berth in program history.

“If you could see the video, you could actually see my father in the stands and the look of disgust, like we weren’t going to win the game,” said Chad Lane, a reserve forward on that team who lived in St. Charles then and resides in Mill Creek now. “It was pretty fun to see the change [in expressions] … when Dan hit that shot, which was just an amazing shot.”

Twenty-five years later, St. Francis will celebrate the 1988-89 team that finished fourth in Class A, as well as its coach, Mike Harper, who will be inducted in March into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The Spartans will honor the team before Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. home game against Prairie Ridge as part of the program’s annual “Alumni Night.”

It didn’t look like Harper was headed for a hall of fame career after his first four seasons, in which St. Francis went 24-77. The program showed signs of life in Harper’s fifth season – when the core of the eventual state team were juniors – improving to 11-14. The next year, a team powered by scoring dynamo Jamie Green, skilled big man Jason Gilroy and sharpshooter Lenert made a tremendous leap, guiding St. Francis to a 27-5 season and trip to Assembly Hall in Champaign.

Harper, still a history teacher at St. Francis, looks forward to rekindling the memories Saturday.

“I would say even more than their physical effort was their loyalty because there wasn’t a lot of tangible success leading up to that year, but they stayed loyal to each other and to me, and it ended up working out pretty well for all of us,” Harper said.

Mike Healy, now athletic director at Wheaton Warrenville South, was the team’s gritty, facilitating point guard. He later became an assistant coach under Harper.

“I guess what makes it so special is that we still, 25 years later, keep in contact with each other and went to each other’s weddings and have seen our kids now grow up,” Healy said. “It’s a bunch of guys you can count on. If you need anything, they’re going to be there for you, and that was all kind of driven by Coach Harper. He just instilled a family-type atmosphere with our group, and it’s continued on.”

Harper ended up leading St. Francis for 23 seasons, finishing with a mark of 315-285, before stepping down after the 2005-06 season. Only one of his final 13 teams finished with a losing record.

Harper thanked former St. Francis athletic director Larry Baker for standing behind him when his first several teams floundered. Harper said he was one of many coaches in the mid-1980s who tried to emulate the authoritarian coaching persona of Bobby Knight, and he matured into a better coach when he left that act behind.

“Sometimes that stuff is OK, as long as you win, but we weren’t winning, and as a result I brought a lot of that [criticism] on myself,” Harper said. “I grew up and matured and Larry Baker was kind of my guidepost in doing that. He helped turn a young, immature coach who was kind of looking for his own identity and said you don’t need to copy anyone else’s identity, just be who you are, and that’s my debt to the ’89 team. When you finally can have some tangible success, you can be yourself and you can have success being yourself, and that’s what I’m indebted to with that group. They kind of turned that page for me.”

After the dramatic win over Walther Lutheran, St. Francis beat St. Benedict in the sectional final and Aurora Christian in a jam-packed supersectional at Lewis University, at which Harper said, “I’m not kidding you, every fire code that could have been broken, we broke.”

Under the old, two-class system, St. Francis played and defeated Mendota in an Elite Eight matchup at Assembly Hall before finishing fourth after a pair of losses the next day against Rock Island Alleman and Prairie Central.

Harper said the 1988-89 team was a trailblazing group at St. Francis, which had previously experienced little success in boys sports. That’s changed substantially since, and last year’s Spartans boys basketball team came tantalizingly close to becoming the second in program history to go downstate before falling to Bartonville Limestone in a hotly contested 3A supersectional in DeKalb.

Harper attended that game at Northern Illinois University and has remained an ardent backer of the program.

“He’s very supportive of everything we do,” current Spartans coach Bob Ward said. “The last few years he’s come and spoken to our kids, and they have him in class. For us, he’s really important as far as the support he gives us and the encouragement he gives us. He’s a real rock as far as the foundation of the school and the athletic tradition of the school.”

Harper stepped away from coaching to free up time for his wife and two children. Both his son and daughter ended up gravitating toward volleyball rather than basketball.

“I don’t want to sound cliché because I love [coaching], there’s a big part of me that misses it, I oftentimes wish I was still out there doing it, but I wouldn’t change my decision because I have been a dad who has had the opportunity to literally be with my kids as they grew up,” said Harper, now 56. “I was right there in the middle of the action, and that what I wanted to do, and I’ve got the chance to do it, and you just can’t beat that.”

After the game Saturday, the celebration will continue at the Bank Restaurant in downtown Wheaton. Most of the ’88-89 team is expected to attend, including Scott England, DJ Paoni, John Driscoll, Green, Lenert, Gilroy and Lane.

Count on Lenert’s magical heave at the Lemont Sectional semifinal coming up a time or two throughout the night.

“I remember I did a Jim Valvano sprint, but ironically enough I did the sprint in the opposite direction [of the rest of the team],” Harper said. “I ran into a teacher at St. Francis and I gave him a bear hug because he was the first guy I saw, and then I kind of composed myself and congratulated the Walther kids. But yeah, I was in a state of shock that it all happened.”

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