A season of struggle ended in typical fashion for Knox men’s basketball on Wednesday the 18th, as the Prairie Fire (2-21, 2-14) faced the Illinois College Blue Boys (10-12, 7-8) in their final game of the regular season.
Despite putting up another long series of valiant efforts, the Prairie Fire fell to IC, 90-80. The Blue Boys led by 20 at the half, but were outscored 49-31 in the second period to halve their lead.
“It really epitomized our whole year,” Knox coach Rob Purlee said. “We couldn’t get any breaks, couldn’t get over the hump, but we hung in there, just like the season. We never gave up, kept playing, and at the end of the day, we end up on the right-hand side and somebody else ends up on the other.”
The game was close for the first ten minutes, with the Blue Boys held to a two-point lead. They stretched it to nine points with 5:38 left, which would have been manageable for the Fire, but a 17-6 stretch to close out the half was a killer and the Blue Boys went into the locker room leading by 20.
“Their players made a lot of plays, and we didn’t,” senior Adam Estergard said. “Their offense was just too demanding.’
The Blue Boys shot 50 percent in the first half, and 45 percent for the game, led by Mark Gillingham’s 30 points. Knox hit only 40 percent of its shots the first half, but improved to 43 percent for the game after going 17-for-37 in the second half. The Prairie Fire were led offensively by senior Clint Moore’s 20 points, including four three-pointers of nine attempted, while Estergard continued to show heart and hustle, with 11 rebounds and two steals.
The close of the season also brings to a close the careers of five of the best players Memorial Gymnasium has seen in quite a while, as seniors Estergard, Moore, Zach Kirven, Rusty Baker, and LaVar Merrell are all leaving for the real world, or at least graduate school, at the close of the year. Ending a college career with a record like Knox’s is no picnic, but to one man, they are glad for their time here. Merrell explained what he respected most about his compatriots.
“When I get out of college, those are the guys who can come over anytime,” said Merrell of his teammates. “Clint was always so happy to be out there, enjoying every game; Zach, the way he grinded it out every day. He had the hardest job, and played hard every day. I wish I could hustle as hard as Adam, he [goes after loose balls and rebounds] like its nothing else. I hated guarding him in practice. And Rusty, he just jumps so high, so easily. He [and Clint] were just having a party every day.”
As it was senior night when the team faced the Blue Boys, the five seniors were put in the starting lineup together for the first time ever. Their play was effortless, and it looked like nothing but a great time to all those in attendance. Kirven pulled down three rebounds while netting two points, though early foul trouble got him out early. Merrell came out shooting in his final performance, dropping eight, including a deep jumper that could have been called a triple. Baker had his usual fun scoring 11 with a block and a steal, though he also collected four personal fouls.
Though their college career is over at this point, the men hope to keep basketball in their lives in some way. While Baker and Estergard hope to at least remain on the court in a casual sense, Kirven can see himself coaching at some point, “At a small school, like my old high school,” as he put it. Moore had a similar thought.
“Coaching is definitely something I’ve thought about very hard,” he said. “I’d love to eventually teach and coach. That probably won’t be ‘til 10, 15 years down the road. I’m looking to do my own thing for a while.”
The change from Tim Heimann to Rob Purlee as head coach was not a seismic explosion for these men, but they still felt the effects.
“There was definitely a difference,” Estergard said. “Mostly in how the plays were run, but also the relationship with the coach changed.”
Kirven felt the change, seeing it as a shift in the right direction.
“He brought new energy to the program, revitalized a lot of the offseason, which helped us as a team.”
Merrell was probably the least affected due to the amount of playing time he typically received in varsity games.
“It didn’t affect me. When I met Purlee he was already doing a lot of the substitutions and things. It was gradual, not much changed from last year to this year,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time Baker had experienced leadership change at the top in his senior season, experiencing it in high school, as well.
“The change couldn’t have had that much to do with (the team’s season),” he said.
Moore had a similar opinion on how Purlee’s presence here for two years had a hand in easing the team into the change.
“I couldn’t imagine just having him come in and having the system completely change, but Coach talked to us quite a bit about it. You know, he’s definitely a different coach than Heimann was. He demands different things,” he said.
Purlee had a trial by fire as the new coach of Knox after what he went through in his first year at the head of the bench.
“I tell you, it’s very humbling,” he said. “As a young coach, I thought I was going to come in here and light the world on fire—anybody who knows me and knows my personality will tell you that.”
Even with the tough year, he had nothing but good things to say of the departing elder statesmen of the Knox court.
“They’re great kids,” he said. “There’s not a social issue in their jacket, not an academic hang-up in their folder, and they will be missed.”