By Jess Medina
Congratulations to the United Township High School Panthers for a season no one could have imagined. Coach Ryan Webber led U.T. to a winning season in his first year as the head Panther. Previously, Webber taught at Moline until his position was cut and then moved to Warren High school for three years. In a stroke of luck or pure genius, U.T. hired Webber as the head varsity basketball coach, and the wheels were set in motion.
Although transition isn’t always smooth, the young men of the 2015-2016 basketball team bought into Webber‘s system and practiced diligently. The wins began to add up, momentum began to build, and with it came a resurgence of the fan base: the students’ Panther Posse, the parents, and the fans in the community. They started to believe. Something was happening. Panther Pride was back, along with respect for the players and the desire for the student body to unite behind their team. They were all in this ride together, and it would become for a journey they will always remember.
I don’t know what expectations were coming into the season but a winning record and a chance at a championship might have exceeded the hopes of most Panthers. This group of coaches and young men achieved far more than we could have imagined. The fan base now has a belief that we no longer have seasons where we are rebuilding – just simply reloading. The Panthers ended the regular season 20-6. The twenty wins were more than U.T. has seen in many years.
Before we start our journey, let’s start with the players. #3 Nathan Hunt. #5 Tyler Hill. #10 De’Ante Walker. #12 Jacob Meeske. #14 Alec Austin. #20 Thomas Hughes. #22 Payton Miller. #23 Taelor Lopez. #24 Devynn Wakefield. #30 Traveon Buchanan. #32 lzaya Sims. #33 Bryant Jefferson. #40 Adam Lack. #42 Kyle Ellison.
The post—season journey begins.
The Post-season tournament action commenced in Normal against Normal High School. The game was closer than expected as U.T. battled through overtime to defeat Normal Community
53-47. Jacob Meeske led the Panthers with 24 points, and Tray Buchanon had 22. Many of the Panther faithful and the Panther Posse made the trip team to support their team. Fans became ‘fanatics’.
The Panthers and coaches, the parents, the fan busses, the cheerleaders, and Panther fans returned to Normal for the Regional Championship against Normal West. Coach Webber likes to call Tray Buchanon his ”big time money player.“ With the Panthers down 39-36, Buchanon scored seven unanswered points to give U.T. the lead and some breathing room. The U.T. Panthers won a Regional Championship, defeating Normal West 61 to 49. Now even the non- believers were starting to feel this could be something special. Plenty of hurdles remained before them, and it was ‘one game at a time’.
Both players and fans were in unfamiliar territory.
The Sectional semi-final was scheduled to take place in Collinsville, but both U.T. and Rock Island requested the game to be moved closer. The l.H.S.A. agreed, and the game was moved to a neutral but familiar site, Wharton Field House in Moline. This game garnered the attention it deserved from Quad-City area fans and media.
Could this game sell out as was the case years ago when basketball was king? Packed or full houses were the norm and not the exception back then. Those of us who can remember those days cherish the memories of that time. The excitement was building and fans throughout the Quad-Cities were buying tickets at a fast pace. The game was a sellout of 5,200, and it proved to be yet another game for the history books.
The fan bases of both Rock Island and U.T. were exemplary in their support and sportsmanship. Did I mention it was a great game? Both teams left it all on the court as the game was double overtime thriller with U.T. winning 55-54 in what most people were calling an instant classic. Included in that was Rocky’s dramatic buzzer-beater 3 point shot to send the game into overtime. During the first overtime, U.T. missed three critical foul shots, which set the stage for yet another overtime. In the second overtime, with U.T. ahead 55-54, Rock Island had an opportunity for the game-winning shot. They missed their last two shots, and U.T. came away with the victory. U.T. victorious, the Panthers and their fans looked to their next challenge.
But the long trip to Collinsville was not to be denied, and U.T. now faced Alton, who had already upset Quincy and Edwardsville. Again the Panther Posse and fans turned out in strong numbers to support their Panthers 244 miles away. Collinsville High School was a great host, anticipating the masse of Panther fans with food and goodies donated by their community for the fans. Fired up by their fans, the Panthers went on a 15-5 run to finish the game and win 50-48.
In what would be their season finale, the Panthers picked the wrong night for cold shooting as they lost to Chicago Simeon 66—36 in the ISU Normal super sectional.
Coach Webber and the players greatly appreciated the support they received this year from the students and fans. Despite not making it to the state tournament, the 2015-16 Panther basketball season was a success! It was undeniable that the Panther faithful would support the team if they could win. I hope the excitement catches on with the other sports and programs at U.T. This could have a snowball effect on everything that is U.T. Panther Pride is back. Thank you, Coach Webber and players, for your hard work and the Pride you have instilled in the school and the communities they represent.