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Coaches take center stage at Carver

Success comes in a variety of ways in basketball, both on the court and on the sidelines.

Be it calm, cool and collected or frantic, energetic and poised, the coaches who have led their teams to the Class 1A state tournament did so in similar ways, yet still a bit differently.

I played against Newman coach Ray Sharp as a player at Aquin, and now having seen him through the eyes of a reporter, I can say that he hasn’t changed one bit over his 11 combined years at the helm of the Comets. I still look at him in a defensive stance or shouting out offensive sets, and think, “Maybe one less cup of coffee in the morning, Ray.”

“I try to give my team intensity,” Sharp said. “Some of that is trying to help them. I’m just trying to give them energy and passion.”

Sharp was seen defending the coaches box at Carver Arena on Friday, as Annawan coach Alex Coppejans stood with his hands crossed, simply observing the action. An emphatic display of fist pumps were in order for Sharp after an errant pass and backcourt violation from Annawan with 1:58 left and Newman down 52-43, but it wasn’t enough in a 59-44 loss.

“They’re pretty used to me by the time they get to the varsity level,” Sharp said. “Sometimes they’re maybe not ready to go and I’m on them, but for the most part, they are. I’m sure there’s been times where they’ve thought, ‘Hey, Coach is a little crazy.’”

Cade Gorzny took over the all-important role of point guard in his senior season. He’s asked to be Sharp in an on-court role as a mentor to younger players and a source of dependability. Part of his role is pushing the gas pedal of the Comets’ offensive attack, something Annawan took away altogether.

“We played at their pace, and that’s what hurt us,” Gorzny said. “We showed we can play at that pace, but we just couldn’t hit any shots.”

“I wish I could coach defense as well as Coach Coppejans,” Sharp added. “Their off-the-ball defense is tremendous. Their guys are in position all the time, and I think that’s what hurt us. We weren’t very good.”

Sharp said that one of the greatest keys to coaching is adjusting to personnel at the high-school level. Newman – like in many seasons past – had several 3-point shooters, as well as an advantage inside most nights with Travis Williams and Devon House. That edge on the interior was all but taken away by Annawan’s ultra-athletic Ben Buresh, who finished
with 12 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and five blocks for the Braves.

Still, the opportunity to lead his team downstate for the first time in school history is something Sharp will always cherish, calling it “a dream come true.” A shot at redemption and more program history will be on the line Saturday when the Comets battle Goreville in the 1A third-place game.

“Obviously we wanted to be playing for a state championship, but we still have a third-place game and some things we want to accomplish,” Sharp said. “We can still tie the 2013-14 team with 29 wins for a school record.”

Coppejans was all smiles as he pumped his fists in excitement after a Dante Weathersby bucket through contact put Annawan up 34-22 with 5 minutes to go in the third quarter. He admitted to sometimes feeling really happy or really down during a game, but having five seniors this season has helped him ease up.

“It’s kind of the way I was as a player,” Coppejans said. “You feel big moments in a game, but you want to make sure your guys are calm. I have to show a little emotion to get our guys going, but then it’s also important to be even keel and not get too high or too low.”

Buresh notices his coach’s passion for the game, and although it looks like he may be yelling at players, he is really just trying to be encouraging.

“He cares about us as players and citizens,” Buresh said. “He’s always supportive and talking to us outside of basketball. We can joke around with him. Since he’s a younger guy, he kind of gives off a vibe that we give off and we can relate to.”

Coppejans was the Braves’ star player when they made their last state appearance in 2009 under Ryan Brown, who then went on to coach at Sterling from 2009-2012. The former player has continued to honor his coach by wearing a maroon jacket, a tradition that goes all the way back to when Ed Walker began wearing the flashy threads in 1997.

“Brown wanted to bring the jacket back, and I got it from him,” Coppejans said. “Now, I want it on the record that he did not do the full-on maroon with the pants.”

Then there is Winnebago’s
Joe Murphy, who I also played against in high school and have the utmost respect for. Murphy, in his 31st year at the helm, led the Indians to a fifth 2A state appearance this season. With 667 wins under his belt and an ultra-calm demeanor, I’ve affectionately termed him “The Godfather of Northwest Illinois Basketball.”

Sharp, Coppejans and Murphy have all guided their teams to the one place where every team aspires to see its season end. The sideline reactions and energy may change, but with all three, a winning culture stays the same.

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