RJ Coffey got a taste of what would become a nearly two-decade regional championship drought when he was a senior at Fulton High School in the winter of 2003.
Coffey was one of the top Steamers that season, an all-Three Rivers Conference wing player. He would need to be at his very best for the regional championship game on his home court, as a powerhouse Mount Carroll team was coming to town. The Hawks had a brute inside in Jeremy Haas, a sharp-shooting guard in Jordan Delp, and many other top athletes that had laid waste to virtually anything in their path all season.
The day of that big game, Fulton suffered a horrible blow. Sophomore point guard Mark Clarkson rolled his ankle in gym class and could not go that night. Coffey now had to worry about ball-handling duties, in addition to scoring.
The short-handed Steamers proved to be no match for the Hawks, who prevailed 77-58.
“Man, they were tough,” Coffey said of Mount Carroll. “They had a lot of weapons. We were a good team, but we ran into a really good one.”
Two years after that, a 17-win Fulton club fell short in the postseason.
Coffey took over as head coach prior to the 2013-14 season and guided the Steamers to a 21-10 record. It ended, however, with a 67-54 loss to Newman in the Morrison Regional title game.
The following season, the Steamers won 18 games, but were defeated by Bureau Valley, 76-62 in the Fulton Regional semi.
In 2016-17, Fulton again won 18 games, but fell to a powerful Winnebago team in the Morrison Regional semifinal.
Perhaps the hardest to take was in 2017-18, when a 24-9 Fulton club lost 67-63 to Bureau Valley in the Fulton Regional championship game. Coffey can recite a chunk of that contest, virtually play by play, from memory.
“That was a tough one,” Coffey said. “Bureau Valley had a really good team, we had a really good team, and they made just enough plays to get us.”
In 2019-20, however, the Steamers would not be denied. On their home court, they beat Milledgeville, Stockton and Galena to capture that elusive regional championship. Coffey had been a part of one as a player, in his sophomore year, when the Steamers were powered by the late Eric Ottens.
Now Coffey brought one back to his school and his town as a head coach.
“I’m pretty lucky where I get the opportunity to coach where I went to high school,” said Coffey, Sauk Valley Media’s boys basketball coach of the year. “The town and the school mean a lot to me, so to get to be a part of that is really cool. Then there’s just working with the guys. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many good kids. That’s fun.
“This year’s group really bought into what we were trying to do, and we had success. It was a special season for all of us.”
Fulton posted a 13-15 record in 2018-19, but there was reason for optimism. The two leading scorers from that team, Connor Barnett and Kyler Pessman, were both sophomores, and Coffey liked the progress he saw from the rest of the team, especially Bradlee Damhoff, a 6-foot-8 junior center, during the summer.
“We were excited coming in [to this season], but we knew it was going to take a little time,” Coffey said. “Once we kind of got going, we caught a stretch there after Christmas where we got pretty hot and played well. I knew we were going to have a chance to make some noise late.”
The Steamers won nine in a row after Christmas before suffering a 57-54 loss at Dixon on Jan. 27. The Dukes had only one win at that point, but no Fulton player was able to check Dixon’s Jacob Gaither, who scored 29 points, including 19 in a tide-turning third quarter.
“I think if definitely taught us you can’t take anything for granted,” Coffey said. “We came in there and had been playing pretty well. It’s one of those games where sometimes you get knocked down, and you’ve got to learn that can still happen. I thought our guys responded well from that. … That’s just one of the steps along the journey that sometimes you’ve got to take.”
Fulton posted a 7-3 record in the Three Rivers West. It was highlighted by a 68-60 win at conference champion Rockridge on Feb. 4, the Rockets’ lone league defeat.
“Our guys executed the scouting report perfectly, and we played hard,” Coffey said. “We just pushed pace. We always want to play fast, and they wanted to slow it down, but we did a nice job of playing the game at our pace, and really played well.”
The Steamers, however, had their hands full with Orion, losing to the Chargers twice – 66-42 at Orion on Feb.11, and 59-40 just 3 days later in Fulton.
Coffey noted the Chargers were a guard-heavy, deep team that simply gave his team fits. He used the term “chaotic” to describe their style.
“In both games, we never settled down for long periods of time,” Coffey said. “We’d have stretches where we played OK, and then we’d turn turn ball over too much. We weren’t aggressive against their pressure once we beat their pressure. It was one of those things where certain teams match up really well with you, and this year, they had our number.”
Fulton went 20-9 in the regular season, then had the advantage of hosting a regional on Stan Borgman Court. It could not have worked out much better.
After a 75-48 win against Milledgeville, the Steamers got Stockton, which had upset Annawan in its regional quarterfinal. Fulton had lost 43-23 to the Blackhawks back on Dec. 23 in the Warkins Tournament in Erie, but turned the tables in the rematch, winning 56-37.
“For our guys, that was a big one,” Coffey said. “We kind of got that one back, where we thought we had let one slip away early on at a holiday tournament.”
In the regional final, Fulton got Galena, which had upset top-seeded East Dubuque in the semifinals. That was good news for the Steamers.
Fulton beat Galena 56-41 in the second game of the season, but lost twice to East Dubuque, including a 66-35 defeat back on Dec. 17. In the regional final against Galena, the Steamers gutted out a 37-30 win against the Pirates.
“East Dubuque, they were state-ranked all season and they were a load,” Coffey said. “Not having to play them was not what we thought would happen. It wasn’t what we planned for, but hey, sometimes you’ve got to get lucky. The postseason, the way it’s formatted, anything can happen. Our guys came in, handled their business and did what they needed to do. They won the ballgames in front of them.”
Damhoff, the lone senior in the starting lineup, was happy with that achievement.
“I wouldn’t say we were satisfied, but it was nice to celebrate on our home court in front of our fans,” Damhoff said. “Winning a regional was always a big goal for us. We wanted to go further than we did, but it just didn’t happen for us.”
Fulton’s season came to an end in a River Ridge Sectional semifinal against Dakota. The Indians got hot from 3-point range, built up a big early lead, and cruised to a 52-39 win.
“You can’t let a team like that get on top of you early,” Coffey said.
Coffey, 35, knew early in his career he wanted to be a coach. After 2 years at Rockford College, where he played basketball for the Regents, he transferred to Northern Illinois, where he graduated in the winter of 2008.
While doing his student teaching at Huntley Middle School, he was a volunteer assistant at DeKalb High School under boys basketball coach Dave Rohlman.
Coffey then was a teacher in Clinton, Iowa, for 5 years, and was a varsity assistant for the River Kings for 4 of those years. He made the move across the Mississippi River to his alma mater in 2014, and still teaches social studies.
He cites his coaches in Fulton as his greatest influences. That would be Barry Bauer, the Steamers’ coach from 1994-95 through 2001-02; Mike Ankrom, who coached from 2002-03 through 2008-09; and his father, Bob Coffey, who has been a longtime assistant coach in the program.
The common thread among those coaches is to play fast, and it’s something that Coffey preaches to his teams to this day.
“We keep it pretty simple,” Coffey said. “We want to put pressure on guys on both ends. We want to play really fast offensively, and really get out in transition. Defensively, we try to play hard and really get up on guys man-to-man. That doesn’t mean we won’t throw some zone or something else in there, but those are our staples – defensively, we want to put pressure on you, and offensively, we want to do the same.”
This year’s Fulton team at least had a chance to slow things down with Damhoff’s presence in the middle, especially against opponents without much size. He also served as a rim protector on the defensive end.
Barnett and Pessman, who are both 6-2, will be returning starters next season, along with 6-foot junior Will Conner Jr. and 5-11 sophomore Brock Mason. Barring a massive growth spurt by a current Steamer or a move-in by someone with size, Fulton will forge ahead next season with a somewhat different look.
“This year we were able to go inside-out a lot,” Coffey said. “Next year, we’re going to have lots of guards come back. Our fresh-soph group’s really athletic. I expect us on both ends to be more aggressive, be more full-court, and trap more in the half-court. Since I’ve gotten here, we’ve talked about playing fast. Next year, we’ve got an opportunity to really ramp it up and really get after it. It will be a different look. We’ll have some of the same guys involved, but it will definitely be a different look to the team.”
The new-look Steamers will still have the same goal – to win a regional title and get another crack at the sectional.
“For our guys coming back, they’re going to be really hungry now,” Coffey said. ”They got a taste of playing at that level, and getting to be a part of something like that. I’m hoping that’s something that springboards us into the summer, and then next year, our guys want it a little bit more.”
Coffey also gave a nod to his assistant coaches, who all happen to be Fulton graduates – Ryan Vos, the fresh-soph coach; Mitch Van Zuiden, the freshman coach; and varsity assistants Adam Hamstra, a former high school teammate of Coffey’s, and Seth Sanderson, who played a few years ago. Coffey says he didn’t plan it that way, but is happy it worked out like that.
“I think we’ve got a good mix of young coaches here,” Coffey said, “and I think we’ll have every chance to be successful going forward. When you’ve got guys who love the program as much as you, it makes working together more fun.”
Away from the classroom, Coffey spends time with his wife of 11 years, Lynne, and their three children, Wrenn, 11; Layton, 7; and Cash, 3. Wrenn likes basketball and softball, and is getting into volleyball; Layton is the musician in the family, and also likes softball and basketball; and Cash has shown signs he’ll be into sports as well.
Coffey has dabbled in coaching some of their youth teams, but mostly just sits back with the other parents and watches.
His main obsession outside of family and basketball is golf. He ventures to many area courses over the summer, but plays the most at Fulton Country Club, where he is a member. He tees it up the most with Mike Menchaca, the girls basketball coach at Fulton, and like other aspects of his life, does what he can to win.
“I love to compete,” he said. “As an old guy, you don’t get too many opportunities to do that. Being able to coach allows me to compete. That’s fun to me, and It’s something I want to do for a long, long time.”
High School: Fulton, class of 2003
College: Northern Illinois, class of 2008
Family: Wife, Lynne; children, Wrenn (10), Layton (7), & Cash (3)
FYI: Boys basketball coach and social studies teacher at Fulton H.S. … Guided Steamers to 24-10 record and a regional title in 2019-20 season. … Owns 131-90 record in seven seasons as head coach. … Also coached fresh-soph football at Fulton this past season. ... Played on Fulton's last regional title team before this season, as a sophomore in 2001.