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PEORIA Saturday Mar 16 2013 Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin hugs Billy Garrett (5) in the last seconds of their game against Cahokia during the state basketball finals game. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times Media
PEORIA — Billy Garrett Jr. is a kid who rarely shows emotion on the court.
He’s a tough kid, a four-year varsity player who fearlessly attacks the basket often.
But even Garrett couldn’t hold back the tears Saturday.
Tears of joy, that is.
As Morgan Park was putting the finishing touches on its season-long goal of winning the Class 3A state championship, Garrett, sitting near the end of the Mustangs bench, was overcome with emotion.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” said Garrett, who hopes to experience similar joy when he plays for DePaul in the fall. “Just a lot of happiness. I had no idea how this [winning a state title] would feel like. With these kids [teammates] and [coach] Nick [Irvin], I couldn’t ask for any other way to do it.”
Whether you’re a fan of Morgan Park or not, there’s no denying the manner in which it performed this season.
Saturday’s 63-48 win over Cahokia at Peoria’s Civic Center wasn’t the Mustangs’ most polished performance, but good enough to produce a 15-point margin of victory.
The Mustangs, who won 33 of 36 games, produced one of the more dominant seasons by a local boys basketball team in recent memory.
They were tabbed the preseason No. 1 by the SouthtownStar and never were unseated, producing the rare coast-to-coast run atop the poll.
The Mustangs exceeded 100 points on five occasions and were held below 60 points just twice.
How good is Morgan Park?`
The Mustangs beat three of the four state finals teams in Class 4A — Simeon (54-53 final), Stevenson (67-52) and Proviso East (82-57) — during the season.
That’s impressive stuff.
“No doubt ever,” said Irvin when asked if he ever imagined his team not hoisting the state championship this season.
Of course, Irvin wanted to assure the media after the game that it didn’t matter who won 1A, 2A, 3A or 4A, Morgan Park was the best in state.
“We are the No. 1 team in the state of Illinois,” he said. “We are the best team on Vincennes.”
The Vincennes reference was a direct shot at Simeon who, along with Morgan Park, sits on Vincennes Ave., just blocks apart.
The comment drew laughs from reporters, including your’s truly.
Irvin is a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, which sometimes doesn’t endear him to peers, but has made him a favorite of the media.
The man is a quote machine.
In five years at Morgan Park, he’s racked up a 132-37 mark.
And now he has a state championship on his resume.
“It’s a great feeling,” Irvin said. “The players and my coaching staff worked hard for this. We’ve had to overcome some things during the season. But you have to think positive. The goal was to win a state championship and we did it.”
What is obvious is that his players not only play hard for him, they respect him.
If the smiles on the players’ faces are any indication, the attacking, up-tempo style that Irvin employs is popular, even though it takes maximum physical and mental effort.
“He’s always there for us,” Garrett said. “He threw me into the fire my freshman year and it allowed me to grow into the player and person I am today. We put in a lot of time and effort to get where we are. Nick expects us to always play hard, but he makes it fun.”
Winning is fun. And with the exception of a brief letdown Saturday, winning the game really was never in doubt for Irvin’s team.
Nor was there ever much doubt, whether it was November or March, that Morgan Park would be crowned 3A state champs.