As the Orr Academy High School boys basketball team practiced Wednesday afternoon, the Spartans displayed an obvious focus.
With a chance to add their school's name to the IHSA history books, the team didn't want to leave anything to chance.
"Being the third team to win a fourth (straight) state championship is very big to us," senior forward Demarius Splunge said. ''Where we from, nobody expected us to do things like this. It’s really amazing that we’re here, so we’re just trying to take full advantage," added the team's leading scorer.
By Thursday morning, the Spartans were on a bus headed to Peoria, site of the state boys basketball championships. They spent the day preparing for Friday night's Class 2A semifinal game against Breese Mater Dei. They could taste their season-long goal of joining Peoria Manuel (1994-1997) and Simeon (2010-13) as the only schools in state history to win four-consecutive state titles. And then, as they ate dinner together at a local restaurant, they got the devastating news that the Illinois High School Association had cancelled the state championships due to concerns over the coronavirus.
"At first, we're coming in, eating, bonding, having a good time," senior guard Bryce Hall said. "Then we see the news on twitter. Honestly, nobody believed it at first," Hall added.
"We were just sad," senior guard Shaun Harris said. "Everybody put their heads down, like, ‘Is it real'? They were crying. The seniors, we were just hurt," Harris added.
Dejected, the team boarded a bus Friday morning to head back home. Just after noon, they pulled up to school, still stunned about the previous 24 hours.
"Of course the boys were emotional," head coach Lou Adams said. "A couple of the coaches were emotional. But at the same time, it's real life. We gotta deal with it. It's bigger than basketball. Just praying for everybody's safety and health," he added.
For the team, not having the chance to complete their championship journey hurt, but it hurt even more because they so badly wanted to win a title for someone special: Tony Manley.
Manley was the Spartans biggest fan. He was Coach Adams' best friend.
Sadly, the 61 year-old passed away last Saturday due to injuries sustained in a car accident.
"We feel like we let him down, they took that away from us," Harris said. "We wanted him to smile down on us, and that just broke our heart."
"He helped everyone, the nicest person you could be around," Hall said. "He never really had nothing bad to say about nobody. That's always good to have a good person to be around. He was a great person."
Before Wednesday's practice, Adams was emotional describing what Manley's friendship meant to him.
"It's kind of like Michael Jordan said in his Hall of Fame speech. 'You saw me, you saw Scottie Pippen'. You saw Tone, you saw me. Great dude. I miss him. I love him. It's not the same," Adams said.
Friday, just after stepping off the bus, the Spartans coach agreed with his players, saying is pained him to lose the opportunity to honor his best friend at the state tournament.
"All downstate -- lunch, breakfast, dinner, we talked about, 'Let's do this for Tone', and we couldn't get it done. But rest in peace, Tone," Adams said.