Now, the pressure is really on Peoria Manual.
For the first time in 21 years of Tribune All-State basketball teams, three players from the same school have been named to the first team.
Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frankie Williams know exactly what comes next.
Such a singular distinction means little unless the Rams become the first Illinois high school team to win four consecutive state championships.
Think about this: If the Manual trio is really that terrific, shouldn't another title almost be a "four-gone" conclusion?
"I'm glad to be a part of a little history," McClain said. "It shows you where the best basketball is being played, and right now, the hotbed is in Peoria. We all thought Frankie should've made it last year along with myself and Marcus. That was one of his goals, and I'm just happy he did it."
The 6-foot-9-inch Griffin is a McDonald's All-American along with Thornton's 6-10 Melvin Ely, the fourth member of the Tribune's schoolboy dream team. The fifth All-Stater is a junior just like Williams, 6-6 Corey Maggette of Fenwick.
McClain realizes adversaries--beginning with quarterfinal foe Young (30-1) on Friday night--will expect Manual (28-1) to perform like a team with three All-Staters.
"Everyone will be trying that much harder to knock us off," McClain said. "I accept the challenge. Once you're the king, you've got to keep your castle. At least, we're in our own kingdom."
Williams, a 6-4 point guard, has emerged from the considerable shadows of Griffin and McClain this season. Roy Schmidt of the HoopScoop recruiting service has begun rating Williams as the No. 1 junior in the state--ahead of the highly touted Maggette. A number of talent scouts rate Maggette among the top three juniors in the country.
"He's got an inner drive that all great players have," Fenwick coach John Quinn said of Maggette. "He enjoys playing against great players because he wants to excel at the next level. Corey is an effective outside shooter who can take it to the basket off the dribble like few players I've ever seen in high school. He's a slasher with tremendous leaping ability."
Ely is close friends with the three Manual players, having played together the last two summers on the same Amateur Athletic Union traveling team. He is also the centerpiece of Thornton's spectacular 91-3 run over the last three years. The Wildcats are 30-0 this season and ranked third in the country by USA Today; Manual is No. 1.
The Fresno State-bound center was a tall, gangly project when the Thornton coaches began molding him into the most intimidating defensive player in the state.
"Melvin is the best shot-blocker I have ever seen in high school basketball," said Thornton coach Rocky Hill. "The rest of our guys have a comfort zone on defense knowing if their man gets by them, the big guy is back there ready to reject anything. Even when he doesn't get the block, he's still a force. He makes you change your shot and mentally gets into people's heads.
"Plus. . . he can score down low and now has a little jump hook. I'm still waiting to see the big guy play his best basketball--hopefully this weekend."
Griffin is Manual's intimidator, leading rebounder and defensive signal-caller. Williams is the most athletically gifted of the three with an eat-my-dust acceleration of a first step, instant elevation and hang time as well as remarkable three-point range.
McClain is the classic overachiever, getting the most out of a football linebacker's body. He bangs for loose balls with the same zeal as he does spotting up for the open jumper or setting a no-trespassing screen.
"Serg does a little of everything for our team," said his father and Manual coach Wayne McClain. "He is the straw that stirs the Kool-Aid."
It's no coincidence that four players on the All-State first team and three on the second team have led their teams to the Class AA quarterfinals.
Hinsdale Central's 6-5 Brian Wardle has simply been the man for coach Bob Mueller, going from guard last season to center because of the 28-2 Red Devils' lack of size. He wound up averaging 21 points and 12 rebounds while maintaining his three-point shooting touch and playmaker-like passing skills.
"I had to sacrifice certain parts of my game for the team," Wardle said. "Actually, having to play more inside is adding to my overall game. It gives me another dimension (for) when I play at Marquette next season."
Young's 6-5 junior Quentin Richardson and Carver's 6-1 Nick Irvin were the best players in the Public League. Richardson is considered one of the top three juniors in Illinois after averaging 24 points and 9.5 rebounds for the first-time Public League champion. Irvin led Carver to the city's final four, averaging 28 points, eight assists and five steals.
Along with Ely's shot-blocking, the other spark in Thornton's withering defense is the ball-hawking of point guard Antwaan Randle El. His overall athleticism and relentless drive could have him playing football and basketball at Indiana.
Repeat selection Ryan Hogan of Deerfield lived up to his reputation as one of the area's most dangerous outside shooters in averaging 29 points a game. Next stop for Hogan and his deadly jumper--the bluegrass of Kentucky.
FIRST TEAMFrankie Williams, Peoria Manual
Corey Maggette, Fenwick
Sergio McClain, Peoria Manual
Marcus Griffin, Peoria Manual
Melvin Ely, Thornton
SECOND TEAMRyan Hogan Deerfield 6-3 sr.
Nick Irvin Carver 6-1 sr.
Antwaan Randle El Thornton 5-11 sr.
Quentin Richardson Young 6-5 jr.
Brian Wardle Hinsdale C. 6-5 sr.
SPECIAL MENTIONLeDaryl Billingsley, Morgan Park, 6-7, sr.; Tarrice Bryson, Stephen Decatur, 5-11, sr.; Stephen Dixson, Springfield, 6-4, sr.; Dennis Gates, Young, 6-5, jr.; Cordell Henry, Young, 5-9, jr.; Erik Herring, Thornton, 6-5, sr.; Cory Little, Addison Trail, 6-4, sr.; Aaron McGhee, East Aurora, 6-7, sr.; Joey Range, Galesburg, 6-4, jr.; Bobby Simmons, Simeon, 6-6, jr.; Roderick Thompson, Carver, 6-6, jr.; Mark Vershaw, East Peoria, 6-9, sr.; Chris Williams, Fenwick, 6-2, jr.; Lance Williams, Julian, 6-9, jr.; Michael Wright, Farragut, 6-8, jr.