Home is where the heart is for Erie's Ryan Winckler, a former star guard during his prep days in town and now in his 10th season as the Cardinals' head boys' basketball coach.|
So for him, it was only fitting that when Erie won only its second regional championship in more than a half-century last Friday night, it was achieved before a large hometown crowd in the Cards' own Cage.
When the Redbirds outgunned Paw Paw to take a 73-65 decision in their Class 1A regional-title bout, it gave Winckler his second regional crown as coach — in his second year in 2005, he guided Erie to a Class A regional plaque, which at the time snapped a 45-year drought between titles.
It also made Winckler just the second coach in the program's 94-year history to win multiple postseason crowns. Morton Koser led Erie to district championships in 1944, 1945 and 1947.
"It was incredible, yeah. Our whole town is really excited," he said enthusiastically. "We had a dinner Sunday night with the players, cheerleaders and all their parents; some of our fans came up, too, and we talked about how the Aledo (Regional) title in 2005 was special in that it was the first in 45 years, but that it had a different tone to it than this one has.
"In 2005, we were the No. 1 seed, and we hadn't won it in so long, it was kind of hard to enjoy that week leading up to it. This one, it was just a blast, even though we knew we had to play our best basketball against two great teams in Indian Creek and Paw Paw."
Of course, the fact it came on the same floor where he finished his own high-school playing career adds even more significance for the 1996 Erie graduate.
"The best part was doing it in front of our fans on our home floor, which is something we'd never done," Winckler stated. "The support of our student section, the 'Rage in the Cage,' was great, and all of the community members came out. It was one of the most special moments I've ever felt in that gym. It was really neat, something the kids and myself will remember and appreciate for a long time.
"After the game, we all went up the street to (local restaurant) PJ's, and everyone bought pizza and pop for us. The fellowship up there, talking with each other, that was something very special."
Now, the Cardinals (19-13) hope to create another special moment by winning the program's first-ever sectional title. That road begins tonight at 7:30 with the unenviable task of facing a 27-3 Lanark Eastland on its home floor in the 1A sectional semifinals.
However, Erie did hand the Cougars one of those three losses, a 68-63 mid-December decision in the West Carroll Holiday Tournament title game. What's more, senior guard/forward Jacob Johnston has the red-hot hand after scoring 89 points in the two regional victories. Over his last three games, the 6-foot-4 standout is averaging 42 points per game.
"I'm not that old — yet, thankfully," quipped Winckler, "but I don't think I've seen anything like it, what Jacob's done the last three games. All of his hard work is paying off. It's led him to this moment, and to being a tremendous leader for our club."
Winckler also cited the recent return of senior guard Zack Maloney from a knee injury that had kept him sidelined through most of the season. "He's given us a lot of confidence and energy we've not had all year," he said.
Along with the steady contributions of senior guards Connor Saad and Rhett Stover (12 points in the regional finals) and junior forward Owen McConnell (nine points, 13 rebounds vs. Paw Paw), Erie feels its time has come to make some history.
"They know they can compete, and it's an exciting thing to know that," said Winckler. "The guys are peaking at the right time. They know they have an opportunity to make it a special night."
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