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Simeon's Russell Woods (left) and Jabari Parker (right) smile as they get ready to take on Stevenson in the 4A championship game. | Patrick Gleason~For Sun-Times Media
PEORIA — It’s a debate that will never be settled. Changes in the tournament format have rendered it almost an apples and oranges comparison, but that doesn’t stop the fans from wondering.
Does Simeon’s run of four consecutive state titles match Peoria Manual’s legendary run in the late nineties? Manual won titles from 1994-1997, back when it was a two-class system. Simeon’s run occurred in a watered-down four-class tournament format.
“We are 15 years in now and people still talk about it,” Peoria Journal Star Nick Vlahos said. “I don’t know if the sheen is ever really going to go away from that. It was special because they were all kids from the south side of Peoria that really did something extraordinary, no transfers. It captured everyone’s attention in a way [Shaun Livingston’s Peoria Central teams] didn’t.”
Manual’s record during the streak was 121-11. The Rams won 36 consecutive postseason games over a five-season span, including 32 during their title run. They defeated national power Oak Hill in 1997 and finished as the No. 1 team in USA Today’s national rankings.
Simeon’s four-year record is 118-15. The Wolverines have won 28 consecutive postseason games. They’ve been a fixture in the national rankings for three years, but have not won the mythical national title.
Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin were the backbone of Manual’s four championship teams and several other stars contributed, including Frank Williams, Willie Coleman and Ivan Watson.
Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn have played on all four Simeon championship teams, with stars like Brandon Spearman, Steve Taylor and Kendall Pollard also playing leading roles.
Legendary West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman is one of the best sources to compare the two teams. Not only did he watch both dynasties, his Blackhawks lost to Manual in the 1997 state championship game. West Aurora played two games against the Manual teams and three against the current Simeon dynasty. The Blackhawks lost all five.
“When Peoria Manual won them it could possibly have been a little tougher,” Kerkman said. “There are a lot of things you have to take into consideration. In the two-class format you had to play the semifinal and title game on the same day.”
If Simeon wins the title again next year, it will still be one-game short of Manual’s 36-game streak.
“I honestly don’t know which team was better,” Kerkman said. “This Simeon team is very good, but Manual ended up ranked No. 1 in the nation in 1997. I think Manual actually beat Oak Hill pretty badly too. Over the past several years Manual’s stature has just grown. You can’t equal the accomplishment now since they changed the tournament.”
Parker is considered the second-best player in the national Class of 2013 and Nunn is ranked in the top 100. How do they compare to McClain and Griffin?
“Nunn shoots the ball better from the perimeter than any of them,” Kerkman said. “I think Sergio and Griffin might have been a little stronger. And Griffin was a true big man so that could swing the pendulum.”
Kerkman thinks Parker is the best of the four players, but is struck by the similar on-court personalities of Parker and McClain, the leaders of both dynasties.
“[McClain] didn’t have any specific talent that stood out other than he was a winner,” Kerkman said. “The same thing is true of [Parker]. When it is crunch time and the game is on the line I’m sure that both of them will step up. So that might be a wash even though Jabari has been more talented as a high school player.”
Current Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari was at Bradley during the Manual run.
“I thought the Manual teams were special,” Molinari said. “Simeon is more of a national program. Peoria Manual was a state thing. The two-class tournament was terrific. It filled [Carver Arena].”
UIC coach Howard Moore thinks the Manual state tournament battles against Thornton enhanced the Rams’ legacy.
“Manual had a real rival here at state that Simeon hasn’t really had,” Moore said. “Everyone knew how good those Thornton teams were. They beat Kevin Garnett and Farragut.”
There weren’t many people in attendance this weekend in Peoria that were willing to acknowledge that Simeon’s four titles equaled Manual’s accomplishment. But remember, this is Manual’s backyard.
Simeon coach Robert Smith has Manual beat in one way, though. He is the only coach in state history to win four consecutive state titles. Dick Van Scyoc coached Manual in the first year of the dynasty and Wayne McClain, Sergio’s father, took over for the final three titles.
“The Manual run just will not be equaled,” Vlahos said. “That is nothing against Simeon. That’s a heck of a team, and a wonderful program. Robert Smith has done an amazing job.”