High school basketball in southern Illinois is serious business, and business is good for the Harrisburg Bulldogs.
“They embody the spirit of Harrisburg,” said Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg. “They’re tough, hard-nosed kids that have truly inspired their town during a hard time.”
A successful high school basketball season can unite a community and have a lasting effect, similar to that of the Feb. 29 tornado that displaced hundreds from their homes.
But when the winds of adversity attempted to blow down the Bulldogs, the team stood and delivered as they knocked off Pinckneyville in the sectional finals at Eldorado to make it to the supersectionals for the first time since 2001.
Despite the team’s 30-37 loss Tuesday in supersectionals to top-ranked Breese Central, the Bulldogs look to return all of their leading scorers in the 2012-13 season with hopes that experience and hard work will help pave a new path to Peoria.
As relief efforts flow into Harrisburg from across the country, and this basketball season’s end gives way to a new one, the future of the town and its basketball team looks bright.
“Really and truly, I don’t think the team’s performance has had a lot of lows this season,” Bulldogs head coach Randy Smithpeters said. “We have only lost five regular-season games, and those games were to top notch competition that we knew a loss might be a strong possibility. We’re a young team, and this season has been very important in preparing our guys for next year.”
Breese Central ended the Bulldogs’ season at 28-6 and, as much as the town would have loved to see their Bulldogs make it to state, the recent trend of parochial schools taking the state championships makes the path beyond the supersectionals somewhat bittersweet.
During the 1994-95 season, Smithpeters’ second season with the Bulldogs, his team beat West Frankfort and Breese Mater Dei to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1938.
Smithpeters has had some good teams since he came to Harrisburg in 1993. He’s made it to the supersectional five times in the last 19 years, coached all five of his sons, and with the team’s leading scorer, Tyler Smithpeters, fit to return next year for his senior season, the Bulldogs will be one of the area’s most highly regarded teams.
“I’ll give Harrisburg all the credit they deserve and then some,” said Breese Central head coach Stan Eagleson. “They have some of the most talented underclassmen I’ve seen in a long time and, in light of what’s been going on in Harrisburg, I think that says a whole lot about the team’s character. The Bulldogs are going to be the team to beat next year.”
Ultimately, Harrisburg may not have made it to state, but the true reward came from what they did for their community by just doing what they do: playing basketball.