Nashville Hornets win IHSA Class 2A State Championship

In the tournament that calls itself “the original March Madness”, the three-thousand person town of Nashville had plenty to go mad about, as their Hornets left the State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday with a state championship.

The final game of the Class 2A boys basketball tournament against Monticello came down to the wire. The Hornets’ Saxton Hoepker gave his team a 32-31 lead with just twenty seconds to go. Hoepker then blocked Monticello’s attempt at a game-winning shot to seal the victory.

“I didn’t even know what to do,” Hornets senior Isaac Turner told Section618.com. “I was so excited, I just sprinted back to the bench and just wanted to celebrate with my brothers.”

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Hoepker and Turner were named to the AP All-State Second Team and Honorable Mention respectively, but both struggled on Saturday. They combined to 4-for-18 with just 10 points.

Kilten Gajewski picked up the slack, posting a double-double with team-high 14 points and 11 rebounds. Gajewski was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field and 4-for-4 from the free throw line. His performance came at a time when his teammates needed it most.

“For that [block] to seal the game, that’s huge,” Hoepker told The Southern Illinoisan. “Kilten had a great game and carried us most of the way, but that block at the end felt great.”

For the Hornets, it’s their first state championship in boys basketball since 1978, which they won in the same building as their 2022 title. They finished second in the 2019 tournament to Rezin Orr Academy in Chicago, which had also won the previous two championships in Class 2A.

“We’ve been here before, no need to panic,” Nashville head coach Patrick Weathers said. He was an assistant coach for Nashville’s two previous state runners-up in 2014 and 2019.

The 2019 state finals run was also the last time the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) hosted a completed state tournament. The 2020 iteration was cut short mid-tournament due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, and the entire postseason was canceled in 2021.

“To be able to look on the back of this, and it says ‘State Champions’,” Gajewski said to Section618.com, referring to his medal. “I’ve got two of them at home that say ‘Second Place’.”

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Nashville Community High School also saw its football team make a deep run in the IHSA Playoffs, finishing as the runners-up in Class 2A in 2019 and 2021. Postseason experience both on the court and the gridiron has given both teams an edge when it comes to performing on the biggest stages.

“Not many teams get the opportunity to do that, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do it,” Turner, a member of both teams, told The Southern Illinoisan. “It’s a huge factor because when it’s your first time playing on the state tournament, you’re going to have nerves. Since I’ve been a part of four of them, it helps me stay calm and just play it like another game and not do too much.”

All but one of the players who logged minutes for the Hornets in the state championship game are seniors, and this championship provides a storybook ending to their Nashville careers.

“My last game as a Nashville Hornet, I get to be a state champion,” Nolan Heggemeier told Section618.com. “It’s a great feeling.”

Weathers entered 2021-22 as a first-year head coach, taking over duties from a retiring Wayne Harre, who led the Hornets for four years and the Hornets girls basketball team for 15 years. Patrick Weathers is the son of Brad Weathers, who coached the Hornets from 2009-2017.

Patrick and Brad are believed to be the first father/son duo to each win IHSA state championships, Brad’s coming in 1989 for Carlyle. Brad is also an assistant coach for the Hornets.

Nashville Hornets basketball has experienced much success in the past ten years, sporting a 247-67 record to go with eight regional titles, three state finals appearances, and this year’s championship. The Hornets stand as one of the most successful 2A teams in southern Illinois, and virtually clinched that designation with their win in Champaign.

Class 2A had not produced a state champion from the southern Illinois region since 2013, when Nashville’s conference rival Harrisburg won. Runners-up from the region since then include the Hornets in 2014 and 2019, and Mt. Carmel in 2017. Breese Mater Dei were not eliminated from the 2020 tournament that ended before the state semifinals without a champion crowned.

Nashville’s path to a state championship ran through the DuQuoin regional and Carterville sectional, before crushing Teutopolis 44-18 at the Banterra Center to advance to the state series.

The Hornets beat DePaul College Prep in a double-overtime thriller to earn a spot in the championship game. They won the final Saturday for their second boys basketball championship in school history.

Nashville has seen several teams in multiple sports end their seasons on the verge of greatness; but now, the three-thousand person town can now call itself a city of champions once again.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Brandyn_2020. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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