Pressure is being the fifth son to play for your father on a basketball team that has been ranked No. 1 in the state all year in Class 2A and is being projected as the first state champion in school history.
"I think this is the best that can win the state title," said Tyler Smithpeters, a 6-foot-4 senior point guard on Harrisburg's 25-1 team.
Tyler is the son of Randy Smithpeters, who is in his 20th season as Harrisburg's head coach. He has taken five teams to the Sweet Sixteen but only one, his 27-5 squad in 1995, advanced to the Elite Eight. Last year's 28-5 team lost to Breese Central in the supersectional.
"Potentially, this is the best team I have coached," Smithpeters said. "This is a good group. It has chemistry, experience, maturity, athleticism, skills and size. People walk out of the gym and talk about our skill level, our shooters and passers and penetrators and the way we defend. These kids have played in big games since they were sophomores. They handle tough situations well."
Tyler has been handling tough situations since he was old enough to dribble a basketball. He played against his older brothers--Kyle, Kolby, Matt and Ryan--in the driveway and learned how to be competitive. More to the point, he learned how to survive.
"It made me tougher. I got a lot of bloody noses," he said. "We played basketball in the driveway my whole life. It was fun but it was tough. But I'm taller than them now."
Last weekend, Tyler scored 26 points as Harrisburg overcame a three-point halftime deficit to beat Herrin 52-44 and netted 20 in a 75-46 romp over West Frankfort. Capel Henshaw, the leading scorer in school history with over 1,600 points, had 14 against Herrin and a game-high 23 against West Frankfort.
It marked the fifth Southern Illinois River-to-River Ohio Division Conference championship for Smithpeters, who has won 75 games in the last three years and 134 in the last six.
The Bulldogs, whose only loss was a 76-68 decision to nationally ranked Dyer County, Tennessee, on Jan. 11, will close their regular season against Benton on Friday.
How good is Harrisburg?
"They are a dominant team. They have four college players. I think they are slightly better than the Massac County (2009) and Murphysboro (2011) teams that finished second in the state tournament," said Scott Mees, a sportswriter at the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale.
"Can they beat Seton Academy and Providence-St. Mel? They have a total package, six kids who can score. They should get to Peoria. It is one of the strongest teams in southern Illinois in the last 10 years. They have so many options to score and so much experience. They are the best team in southern Illinois, regardless of class."
Smithpeters, who ranks behind only Henshaw on the school's all-time scoring list, averages 16.5 points and six assists per game. Henshaw, a 6-foot-3 senior guard who is committed to Lewis University in Romeoville, averages 15 points per game. His father is the team's assistant coach.
Other starters are 6-foot-3 senior Ryne Roper (10 ppg), who will play baseball at Illinois, 6-foot-6 senior Dakota Upchurch (7 ppg, 7 rpg), who will play football at Southern Illinois, and 6-foot-4 junior Eli Taborn-Scott (12 ppg). Mees said Taborn-Scott would average 20 points per game on another team.
Top reserves are 6-foot-4 sophomore Bahari Amaya (8 ppg), whose father played at Walther Lutheran and Southern Illinois, 6-foot senior Justin Younger and 6-foot-2 junior Snjolfur Bjornsson, a foreign exchange student from Iceland.
"Sure, there is pressure from the fans to win our first state title," the coach said. "We've been ranked No. 1 all year. But we don't feel pressure in practice. Sometimes the outcome isn't in your hands on the tournament trail."
But Smithpeters, whose teams have won 28, 26 and 24 games in the last three years without a state trophy to show for it, prepared for this season like no other. He deliberately scheduled four shootouts against quality opponents as tune-ups for the state tournament.
"I did it to get better. I didn't care if we got beat. All of it was to make us better. We had four starters returning and we had high expectations. Our goal was to play good competition to get better. And I think we have," the coach said.
He has created a renaissance in Harrisburg basketball. From the time the program began in 1921 to the time that Smithpeters became head coach in 1994, the Bulldogs got past the regional only once. In the old South Seven, they usually were dominated by Centralia, Mount Vernon and Benton.
Smithpeters experienced a rough patch, too. From 2002 to 2006, his teams won only 28 games. Since then, they have won 21, 20, 18, 24, 26, 28 and now 25 and counting.
"Last year, we got a lot of experience but we lost in the supersectional. This year we have more experience and more maturity. Losing was hard to swallow last year, not being able to go to Peoria. Everybody wants to go there this year," said Tyler, who is being recruited by Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley schools.
"It is a lot of fun. Everybody can score. If I give them a pass, they have a chance of scoring. We are pretty talented. We get along with each other. Everything fits in. This is the team that can win the state title."