It didn't take Alec Peters very long to confirm his suspicion that this was going to be a very special season for basketball in Downstate Washington.
At Washington's Tournament of Champions during the Thanksgiving holiday, coach Kevin Brown's Panthers swept a prep school from St. Louis, St. Rita from Chicago, a school from Miami, Florida, with a 6-foot-10 center and two other Division I players and Peoria Notre Dame. The closest margin was 11 points.
"We came away saying that this is what we know we can do, that we can be something special this season," Peters said. "This is the team that will bring back a state title to Washington."
Washington is 24-1 after sweeping Morton 63-32 and defending state champion Peoria Central 72-32 last weekend. The Panthers are ranked No. 3 in Class 3A behind Morgan Park and North Chicago. They'll try to extend their 13-game winning streak against Bartonville Limestone on Friday and Metamora on Saturday.
Peters, a 6-foot-8 senior, had 24 points and eight rebounds against Morton and scored 25 points against Peoria Central while being matched up against 6-foot-5, 275-pound Missouri-bound football star Josh Augusta. In avenging last year's overtime loss to Peoria Central in the sectional final, Washington handed the Lions their most lopsided defeat since 1975.
"Last year, we felt we would make a good run in the postseason. After beating Peoria Manual in four overtimes in the first game of the sectiona, we felt the momentum would carry over and we would beat Peoria Central," Peters said.
"At the end of regulation time against Peoria Central, I got fouled on a shot with seven seconds left. But I only made one free throw and the game went into overtime. That still bugs me. The feeling we had in the locker room after that loss was that it would give us momentum for this year. We were really looking forward to this season.
"So the victory the other night against Peoria Central helped us to forget last year. To win the way we did (Washington converted 67 percent of its shots and led 35-14 at halftime), it was a great overall win for us. We certainly avenged last year's loss."
Brown, in his ninth year, believes this team has the potential to be the best he has produced, better than last year's 26-6 sectional finalist and his 2008 squad that finished fourth in the state tournament and his 2005 Sweet Sixteen qualifier.
"We have three ball-handlers, three possible point guards, an inside threat and an outside threat. If you zone us, we can shoot. If you go man-to-man against us, we have a motion offense," Brown said. "We have opportunistic shooters. Different guys step up each night. And we seven seniors who provide leadership."
And there is Peters, the best player in the Peoria area and one of the best in the state. He committed to Valparaiso over Illinois State and three more high-profile programs--Missouri, Tennessee and Boston College--because "I wanted to play right away and Valpo is a great fit for me."
"The other schools were great but Valpo set itself apart with its family atmosphere," Peters said. "I like the campus and the feeling on game day. It feels like you are at home. I liked the coaching staff. Assistant coach Roger Powell played at Illinois. I grew up watching his game.
"And I wanted to play right away. They are graduating seven seniors so it is a better situation for me. I bonded with the other four freshmen coming in. I hit it off from the start with Lexus Williams (Marist) and Jabril Adekoya (Andrew). Valpo is best for me and my family."
Brown describes Peters as a "steal" for Valparaiso. "He is a complete player. He has things no other player I have coached has. He is a great leader, vocal and possesses a piece of every part of the game. He is a
6-foot-8 post player who can handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter. He gives us huge weapons," the coach said.
Peters is surrounded by 5-foot-11 senior guard Mason McCoy (9.8 ppg, 4 apg, 3 steals per game), 6-foot-2 senior Tucker Harlan (8 ppg), 6-foot senior point guard Cade Jackson (3 ppg, 4 apg, 3 steals per game) and 6-foot-4 senior Troy Adams (9 ppg, 7 rpg).
They get help off the bench from 6-foot senior guard Grant Johnson and 6-foot junior guard Casey Danley. Johnson averaged nine points per game in the first four games before suffering a foot injury.
Washington's only loss was to Springfield Lanphier in the semifinals of the Pekin Holiday Tournament on a tip at the buzzer.
"We're peaking at the right time. We think we'll carry our momentum over to the postseason this year," Peters said. "The strength of this team is our overall leadership. The seven seniors have been around the program for four years. We get on each other in practice. We know we can't take a play off. Everybody is accountable. We've been together since third and fourth grade.
"This is a composed team. We don't get rattled easily. We know how to handle a full-court press. We can slow it down and run sets with motion or we can get the ball outside for three-point shots. Our defense creates offense. We create a lot of turnovers. It is a complete team. We have more chemistry this year and a greater feel for the game. We know how to find each other in the right place at the right time."
Peters insists he doesn't feel pressure to score 20 points in every game. His season low is 10. But he admits he feels pressure to perform every night, that he knows everybody in the bleachers is looking at him to see if he is good enough to play in Division I.
"As long as we get a W (win), that's all that matters," he said. "We feel we should be in the position we are at. Look at the box score against Rochelle. I scored 10 but Adams had 17, McCoy 16.
"I'm confident if I have a bad night shooting or they defend against me, someone else will pick me up. It won't be the end of the world if I don't have a 20-point game."
Washington is a basketball town, even though the football team won the school's only state championship in 1985. Dick Van Scyoc coached in the Tazewell County community for 15 years before moving on to Peoria Manual and becoming the winningest coach in state history. Mel Roustio, Chuck Buescher, Chuck Westendorf and Steve Doty also coached there.
"Everybody in town looks forward to Friday and Saturday night basketball games," Peters said. "From a young age, you want to be a part of it. The grasp the feeling. It's what makes the town grow. Everyone gets excited about basketball on the weekends. As long as we have success, the whole town gets excited."