For years, Gehrig Koerner has been making the trip to Peoria with his dad, Kenny, to watch the state basketball finals.
This year there is a pretty big change in plans, since Gehrig Koerner won’t be in the stands, but on the floor. The Newman senior guard and his Comets teammates will be one of those teams vying to claim a state championship in Peoria this weekend.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” he said. “I’m still in shock from [Tuesday] night winning our game. It just didn’t feel real until [Wednesday] morning when I woke up and we had another practice. Coach said nothing would be greater than going to practice on Wednesday, and that’s what we all said too.”
When Koerner walks into Carver Arena for Friday’s semifinal against Annawan, he will have some idea of what to expect, having been in the building before and seen high school basketball played at its highest level.
It’s a tradition that began long before Gehrig was born. When Kenny Koerner was in high school at Tri-Point in the 1980s, he and five of his friends would travel to games after the Chargers got knocked out of the regionals, watching the finals back when they were played at Assembly Hall in Champaign.
The group kept up the annual tradition when they got to college, and then after. When they started having kids, the kids came along to join in the weekend of basketball. That became another highlight of the trip, as the fathers got to see the kids’ eyes light up as they walked into the arena.
“For us, a lot of it is getting to see your friends,” Kenny Koerner said. “Then it’s my kids and getting to see their kids. … We follow teams from all across the state, and we follow kids that we’ve heard about throughout the year.”
The Koerners have their state routine down. Every year, Gehrig and his father head down to Peoria on Saturday morning. After a quick stop at the Burger Barge for lunch, they head to Carver Arena. They stop by the March Madness Experience at the Peoria Civic Center Exhibition Hall, the huge exhibit celebrating the history of the IHSA tournament. Then, it’s over to the arena to see one game after another.
“We made a fun day out of it,” Gehrig said. “We go to all the games. During halftime, I sneak out and go to the Experience because that’s so fun.”
The group makes its big weekend the trip for the 1A and 2A finals, though some of them head to Peoria the next weekend to see the big schools as well, watching four state champions getting crowned. Gehrig remembers seeing teams battle their hearts out, knowing they need to fight to the end with seniors facing the ends of their high school careers. He hopes that his Comets can be one of those teams fighting until the final seconds this year.
One of the Koerners’ trips to state involved seeing Jahlil Okafor’s Whitney Young squad win a state title by coming out fired up to start the game, jumping out to a quick 18-10 lead on its way to beating Benet Academy 46-44 in the 2014 Class 4A title game.
“They took it to the other team,” Gehrig Koerner said. “I want that for our team, too.”
With Gehrig’s Newman team rattling off 11 wins in a row and making its way through the Polo Regional, Eastland Sectional and DeKalb Supersectional, his father’s friends have been following the news.
“I’ve been on the phone every day and night with text messages and phone calls since sectionals,” Kenny Koerner said. “My phone’s been blowing up. All my friends have been excited. Never in a million years has anyone dreamed that we would have someone in our family playing in the tournament.”
It’s not the first time the group has been rooting for one of its own. Mitch Holmgren – a member of the group that makes the annual trek to state – coached Deer Creek-Mackinaw to a fourth-place finish in Class 1A in 2011.
It is the first time that one of the group that has been going to state year after year will be in uniform trying to bring home a trophy. Gehrig said it was a possibility his dad brought up to him once.
“He was trying to get me used to the experience and going to watch state teams play,” Gehrig Koerner said. “He said ‘I hope I get to see you play on this court someday,’ and I said, ‘Well, I can try my best.’ I was just glad I could make that come true.”
The group of state regulars includes people from Kankakee and around Champaign, all who will be rooting for the Comets this time around.
“I think they’re all just pulling for us,” Kenny Koerner said. “I think everybody’s on the same page with this one.”