PEORIA—Chicago’s basketball community seemed to notice Taeyon Neal as soon as he stepped foot on the court three years ago and almost everyone had the same question: Why was a big-bodied, 6-8 freshman at Providence-St. Mel?
Transfer rumors swirled, but Neal stayed on the West Side, at the tiny Class 1A school they call “The Castle.” Knights coach Tim Ervin had a difficult, long-term plan. He was going to play a group of talented freshman on varsity, let them take their lumps for years and expect it to pay off in the end.
Neal was on varsity his freshman season, along with Tim Ervin II (the coach’s son), Tyriel Nelson and Jason Mason. It was rough going, but each year they advanced a step farther in the playoffs.
Saturday at Carver Arena, Ervin’s bold vision came to fruition. He hugged his son and celebrated as the final seconds ticked away on Providence-St. Mel’s 52-29 victory against Cissna Park in the Class 1A state title game.
“I’m so happy for my players,” Ervin said. “My philosophy is that players win the games and coaches lose the games. I give credit to these guys. We had a game plan and the executed it.”
The game plan against the Timberwolves (32-5) was to “make it tough to shoot threes and make it tough in the post for their bigs.” Cissna Park’s 6-7 Stadeli brothers, Christian and Julian, had dominated throughout the state tournament.
Neal, who has developed into a 6-10 UIC recruit, was able to stop them. Julian Stadeli had four points and Christian scored 11.
“It’s very rare to play against people my height,” Neal said. “I haven’t seen anything like them before.”
Mason and junior Avonte Thomas also played key roles in the Knights’ post defense. Cissna Park’s previous season low was 41 points.
“Giving up 29 points is pretty impressive in the state championship,” Ervin said. “Defense has always been our focus. I believe anyone can score but it takes a special group to stop people from scoring. These guys are a special group of guys.”
Nelson led Providence-St. Mel (30-6) with 15 points and Deion Jackson had 13 points and five rebounds. Mason added nine points and seven rebounds.
“To bring it all together after four years, with the way we have progressed, it is the greatest feeling in the world,” Ervin II said. “We did this for the school, for the city of Chicago.”
The Knights led 29-13 at halftime and never let up.
“The thing [people say about] city basketball is that it’s undisciplined and scrappy,” Mason said. “There are all those stereotypes around it. To show we can be disciplined and play with teams that are fundamentally sound, that is big. To show that Chicago isn’t just reckless. We can play hard-nosed defense and lock in and be focused.”
Providence-St. Mel’s only other state title came in 1985 in Class A. Tom Shields led the Knights to a 31-3 season. Some observers believed that team was as good or better than Mount Carmel, the AA winner that year.
“We just kept being positive,” Ervin said. “The idea was when these guys got to be seniors we would be good enough. I continued to remind them we were playing against older guys and that we would be the older guys at some point. They stayed together and believed in each other.”
This was the final game for Cissna Park coach Kevin Long, who is retiring after 29 seasons.
“These guys cared so much and that is what I’m grateful and thankful for,” Long said. “Not many coaches can say they went out on a stage like this. We talked to these guys about setting big goals, thinking big, and they bought into it. That is how I want them to lead their lives, have high expectations and set the bar high.”Tags: cissna park, Providence-St. Mel