Washington fulfills goal of being among Illinois champions

Bryan Veginski
Washington Community High School senior Matt McClellan goes up for two points during the Panthers state match-up against Chicago Marshall.

The Washington boys basketball team entered the 2007-08 season with high expectations.

With some key components back from a 27-2 squad the previous winter, plus some newcomers with ample potential, the Panthers desired a place among the state’s best.

It fulfilled those lofty goals with a fourth-place finish over the weekend in Peoria at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state final.

Washington had not produced a state award that high in boys basketball since netting second in 1909.

The Panthers were 26-5 during a year that included three winning streaks of at least seven games.

Washington began 8-0, which included a sweep of three games Nov. 23-24 in the second annual Tournament of Champions it hosted for the first time.

The Panthers then lost twice in four tries in the Dec. 27-29 Pekin Insurance Holiday Tournament, settling for sixth place in defense of their 2006 championship there.

Washington then won nine straight games, climbing to 19-2 and into the top five in the Associated Press Class 3A state poll.

The day after the boys claimed a hard-fought 65-63 victory Jan. 4 at resurgent Limestone to began the second surge, tragedy struck as well-regarded WCHS senior and athletic teammate Evan Knoblauch died in a car accident.

A 49-47 setback at hard-charging second-place Pekin Feb. 15 created some late-season Mid-Illini Conference drama.

The loss snapped a 37-game Mid-Illini winning string for the Panthers that dated back to December 2005.

With victories over Morton (80-68, Feb. 19) and East Peoria (75-54, Feb. 22), Washington completed its fourth consecutive outright M-I title.

During that time, the Panthers were a remarkable 52-4 in the league.

Washington staved off an upset bid Feb. 26 by Canton, the conference’s last-place team, 63-57, to commence East Peoria Regional play.

With a 64-47 win three nights later over Morton, the Panthers collected their fourth regional crown in a row.

Washington posted double-digit triumphs March 4 and March 7 over Central (73-57) and Geneseo (64-46), respectively, to march to the Galesburg Sectional championship.

It was the program’s second sectional title in four years after runner-up standings in ’06 and ’07.

The Panthers made the trek north and, in front of a boisterous throng of fans, rolled Sterling, 56-40, in the DeKalb Super-sectional to complete their journey to state.

Although Washington lost twice at Carver Arena, it played well and extended its state-ranked opponents for 32 minutes.

The Panthers now are 98-21 over the last four seasons with a 15-5 postseason mark.

Like four-year varsity player Matt Roth, Michael Arnett was part of Kevin Brown’s first class at Washington.

“It’s going to be tough not being with these guys,” said Arnett, who watched from the stands in 2004-05 as the Panthers, who included Michael’s brother, David, played at Redbird Arena in the Class AA Normal Super-sectional.

Other seniors departing include Josh Broadstone and Matt McClellan.

Washington captured the attention of many folks statewide, and soon it can begin preparing its drive for five.