Cole Schomaker believed.
When the season went into cold storage.
When practices were outlawed.
When it would have been easy to give in, Schomaker didn’t.
And the Mascoutah boys basketball team loves him for it.
“It really kept my hopes up and kept me from going into that dark place,” senior guard Jacob Rudolphi said.
On Nov. 19, the Illinois High School Association suspended all athletic activities. Winter sports were days away from beginning whatever their season would look like in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic’s darkest days. After football, boys soccer and girls volleyball all got shoved out of the fall and into the spring, there just weren’t enough days in the calendar to move basketball. If it was going to happen it would have to happen in winter.
In his first season as Mascoutah’s varsity boys basketball head coach, Schomaker was sure of it and told his team to prepare accordingly.
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. All the while there was no news — good, bad or otherwise.
Schomaker kept beating his drum.
“It meant a lot having that one person in your corner,” junior forward Justin King said. “It gave us that positivity we needed.”
Mascoutah was in need of positivity well before the season was suspended. The boys basketball program still mourns the loss of coach Justin Love. Hired to lead the Mascoutah in 2017, Love died suddenly June 23. He was 41 years old.
“Coach meant a lot to a lot of people,” said Schomaker, who was promoted to be the program's head coach in August.
To help cope with Love's loss, Mascoutah's players focused their energy on the coming season. They would take the court with Love in their heart and play the way he taught them. The way he expected them to play.
All of that fell into the abyss Nov. 19.
That’s when Schomaker picked up his megaphone and blasted out his message of hope.
“He kept telling us we’d have a season,” senior point guard Cedric Rhodes said. “He kept putting in our heads, ‘Good things happen to good people.’ ”
Unable to practice on campus with the suspension of the season, the players got their work in where they could. They took Schomaker’s words to heart.
“We were working when we didn’t think we’d have a season,” Rhodes said.
The players said Love’s death prepared them for the mentally taxing winter of the unknown. In a way, dealing with the pain and loss of their beloved coach together strengthened them.
“We’re brothers and we’re family, we never let go of each other,” Rudolphi said. “We’ve been through a lot this year.”
On Jan. 27, the IHSA — with the approval of the Illinois Department of Public Health and Gov. JB Pritzker — resumed the winter season. Games could be played in parts of the state that met certain community metrics related to COVID-19. Even if the different regions couldn’t begin games immediately, practices were allowed.
The morning the news broke that practices could resume, Schomaker had his team in the gym that afternoon.
“It was a great moment,” King said. “We were having a season, it was time to lock in. All that positivity in the months prior helped a whole lot.”
It carried the Indians through their uncertainty. Now they’re showing everyone what they’re capable of doing.
Mascoutah (11-0 overall, 6-0 Mississippi Valley Conference) is unbeaten and has won three games by eight or fewer points.
Mascoutah made its debut on its home court against rival Triad. It wasn’t the way anyone envisioned it would be. Everyone, including the players on the court, were masked. The crowd, which is normally so supportive and boisterous, was reduced significantly.
It also was the first time the Indians played at home since Love died. But they didn’t have to look far to find reminders of his presence. Mascoutah leaves a seat on the bench empty every game with a cover on it that bears the logo the school adopted in Love’s memory. The logo is on the mats that are in front of the bench area. There are banners hanging in the rafters that carry the logo, too.
“I don’t think there’s a day I don’t think about Coach Love,” Rhodes said. “I feel him every time we play.”
Games against Triad are usually tough. None were harder than this one. And still Mascoutah thrived.
The Indians rolled to a 72-43 win. The 6-foot-5 and 175-pound King exploded that night. After scoring just nine points in the first two games, he erupted for 23. King said he was out of sync and wasn’t playing like himself early on.
“That Triad game helped me a lot,” he said. “It boosted my confidence.”
Mascoutah as a whole is playing with an abundance of confidence even with all the challenges that remain. The schedule is relentless and unforgiving. At one point Mascoutah played seven games in nine days. That’s what NBA teams do. In a typical season most high school teams play three games in a week, maybe four if it's in a tournament.
“I’m never going to complain about playing games,” King said. “That’s something every kid would want. I miss practice now, but at the same time I don’t.”
It’s fun, but it can be a grind. Schomaker said when he got the team in the gym on one of its off days during the long string of games it was mostly to recover. The players' legs just weren’t there.
“Some days you’re not going to have your all,” Rhodes said. “We have to do what we have to do to get this win.”
As the wins have piled up, the target on Mascoutah’s back has grown. Every night the Indians get their opponent’s best shot. That’s the way they like it.
“We wanted all this before the season started,” King said. “We embrace it. It’s fun knowing every team is going to give you their best.”
Even as the season has resumed, there is no state tournament this year. The season will end March 13 for everyone in Illinois. That’s been a disappointment for Mascoutah, which feels it could really turn some heads and go on a deep run.
“We’ve got a good team, we’ve got depth on the bench,” Rhodes said. “If we had playoffs I feel we’d go a long way.”
Instead, Mascoutah has focused on winning its conference. Since 1999, the Indians have won or shared the MVC title five times, the last of which came in 2008-09, when they split it with Triad. Their last outright conference championship was in 2006-07. Each of Mascoutah’s previous five conference crowns came with a 9-1 record.
The Indians have been given an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done at their school in a long time. They’re not going to let it get away.
“I feel like we’re having an unbelievable year right now,” Rhodes said. “The seniors didn’t even know if we’d have a season.”
Schomaker knew. And he told them every chance he got that when they did, it would be special.