PEORIA – Almost every basketball team in the state will have to move forward without some graduated seniors next season.
Few – if any – will need to replace program-transforming presences the way Mooseheart will with the departures of Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng.
The South Sudanese seniors led Mooseheart to a combined 53 victories the past two seasons, including Saturday’s win against Heyworth in the IHSA Class 1A state championship game at the Peoria Civic Center.
While there was no dampening the celebration of the first team state title in school history, the day also had the feeling of an end of an area for the program, which operated in relative obscurity until the arrivals of the 7-foot-1 Nyang, the 6-10 Puou and the 6-7 Deng. Puou and Deng are considered Division I college prospects.
“Will we ever get back here in another 100 years?” coach Ron Ahrens asked rhetorically after the game. “That’s what it’s going to be, will we ever get back here. I don’t know. But I’m just happy for [the current players]. I’m one season at a time.
“ … I’m sure people will want us to lose. I’m sure there’s a lot of whispers up there that we illegally recruit and stuff like that, and I can live with that. I don’t care.”
Deng, Puou and Nyang were at the center of an eligibility controversy last year that eventually caused the IHSA to revisit its transfer bylaws. But the three were allowed to continue their Mooseheart careers, and they did not disappoint.
Deng was brilliant in his Mooseheart swan song, averaging 29 points in the Ramblers’ final two wins in Peoria. Puou also sparkled with double-doubles in both games, while Nyang added his usual formidable interior defense and occasional put-backs at the rim.
The Ramblers also must part with their top reserve, speedy senior guard J.J. Odunsi.
Mooseheart, however, is slated to return a pair of starters – speedy sophomore point guard Freddy Okito and junior wing Hameed Odunewu, a disruptive defender who also excels in transition.
Both expressed optimism they can be part of keeping Mooseheart boys basketball more of a force than it had been before the past two years.
“It’s obvious we’re going to have tons of stuff to adjust to since we don’t have our height and everything,” Okito said. “But I think any team can get [downstate] if they play hard and they’re focused.”
Odunewu said the Ramblers will need to “adapt to what we have,” which, he suggests, will be much more than some might assume. Odunewu rejected the premise that the weekend marked the end of an era.
“Not at all,” Odunewu said. “We’ve got a whole campus full of people that nobody even knows about that can hoop.”
One of the few positives for the Ramblers in bidding farewell to their big fellows – Mooseheart will not be burdened by the pressure of high expectations the way the Ramblers were the past two seasons.
That especially held true for Ahrens, who was well aware that anything less than winning a state title would have drawn raised eyebrows considering the way Mooseheart towered over 1A opponents.
“If we would have lost, it would have been ‘How can a coach with that big of a team lose?’ ” Ahrens said. “I was in a no-win situation, but I don’t care. I’m just happy for these guys that they were able to win.”