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A Basketball Journey comes to an end
By Greg Taylor

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[February 28, 2018]  And just like that, it’s over. In a blink and without apology, it’s over. That, my friends, is life and the world of High School basketball. The game gives so much – enjoyment, excitement, and achievement – and then it’s over. So during “the days after” the Mount Pulaski High School boys basketball season ended – much sooner than so many hoped it would – this hoops dad has some reflections, memories and takeaways I don’t want to keep to myself.


I still remember telling MPHS coach Ryan Deibert in November of 2014 that my freshman son Peyton was simply not ready for varsity basketball – I am so glad he didn’t listen to me! Peyton played varsity from game one of his freshman year, earning his first start in the 9th game of the season at Athens. He would start every other game of his High School career with the exception of senior nights in 2015, 2016 and 2017. It was so much fun to watch my son – and his teammates grow and develop as both players and young men.

Peyton in biddy-ball

But in many ways, this journey actually began several years earlier, when Peyton and most of his class began to play basketball at Mount Pulaski Grade School as part of Jamie Anderson’s “biddy-ball” program. Peyton would play many springs and summers with “club” teams based in Lincoln at places like The Gym in Springfield and weekend tournaments throughout the Midwest. Summer basketball camps at Lincoln Christian University and Greenville College were regular happenings during Junior High. High School and summer games at Jacksonville, Lincoln and Riverton became part of the Taylor family summer routine. Last summer, Peyton had the chance to play for an AAU team based out of Bloomington led by B-N boys coach Dodie Dunson. What a blur – what a ride.

Along the way, I always had the chance to be a part of the process – whether announcing, working the clock, doing the scorebook or helping with stats – what an incredible blessing! Probably my greatest highlight of the past three years was the opportunity to spend time with the team and offer encouragement before each game just prior to tipoff. I will forever treasure each and every time spent in the locker room with the team!


How do you summarize a high school career that produced 1221 points, 940 rebounds, multiple all-tournament team honors and all-conference recognition? Those are just a few of the accomplishments of MY son – Peyton Taylor! Here are a few of my memories of the past four seasons:

Freshman highlights

In just his fourth varsity game, Peyton blocked a shot against Springfield Calvary in the final seconds of a close game to ensure victory and give the Toppers the 3rd place trophy in our own tournament. It was pretty neat to hear PORTA star Max Muller give Peyton congrats on his way to the locker room. Playing with senior leaders (and scorers) like Mike Lowery, Beau and Blake Collier, and Matt Amidon, Peyton found himself with really just two primary tasks each game: play defense and rebound. And he did a good job! Beating LSA at the St. T tournament was memorable, but more than that, watching Peyton hold his own and not back down against LSA senior Hunter York brought smiles.

An intense road win at Hartem, a great comeback road victory at Sangamon Valley, and two surprisingly easy regional wins against Illini Central and Springfield Calvary at Mason City are tucked away in my mind. The season came to an end against the #1 team in the state – Springfield Lutheran – but a 17-12 season was a successful beginning to Peyton’s high school career. Senior LuHi star Pierson Wofford sought Peyton out after the game and encouraged him with this: “you’ve got a great future in front of you – best of luck.”

Sophomore growing pains

A challenging sophomore year ensued, as the Toppers struggled to build on the momentum of 2014-15. Yet, even in the midst of his most challenging season at MPHS, memories still abound. The season started with a great victory in the Thanksgiving tournament against Central A&M – a school Peyton could have ultimately played for – we served in ministry in Moweaqua and seriously considered returning in 2006. Peyton had the first double figure scoring game of his career against A&M, and yet that would be one of few positive games during the fall of 2015.

The Toppers tried really hard in 2015-16, but ended the year with a 13-15 record, and once again were placed in a regional with the #1 team in the state – Colfax Ridgeview. One game that really sticks out from sophomore year however was Peyton’s “coming out” party in January at home against Delavan – 24 points and 15 rebounds. Although the game ended in a loss, I believe it was the first time Peyton began to really visualize how good he could become. Seniors Brett and Brandon Huff, Dalton Litterly, Will Stewart and Caleb Pryzkopanski gave multiple seasons to MPHS hoops and helped encourage Peyton along the way. One individual highlight for Peyton sophomore year was being named to the all-tournament team at the St. T Christmas tourney.

Junior turn around

I have watched Mount Pulaski hoops for several years even before Peyton began in HS, and one thing is pretty constant – the Toppers usually begin the season strong by hosting our own Thanksgiving tournament. Junior year proved to be the exception. Playing with injured new point guard Seth Huff, Mount Pulaski struggled during turkey week, going just 1-3 and losing on Saturday to Edinburg. Following home losses against Warrensburg and Williamsville, and a road blowout at LSA, Mount Pulaski entered the St. T tournament just 3-6 on the year, and I wondered if even 10 wins were possible. Wow was I off – and in a major way!

Mount Pulaski went 3-1 at St. T, and won most of January, surging to a 14-8 record – winning 11 of 13 along the way! What a ride! Road wins at Hartem, Sangamon Valley and Springfield Lutheran were thrilling for one reason or another, the Toppers finally beat Riverton, and a 13-point victory over LSA at St T to claim 3rd place during Christmas was quite a turnaround from the 25 point loss just three weeks earlier. Junior year MPHS was able to host the regional, but once again, the IHSA sent the #1 team in the state – Colfax Ridgeview – our direction and a close regional final (tied 30-30 midway through the 3rd) ended with an 11 point loss to the Mustangs.

Senior Lucas Aylesworth was the heart and sole of this team, but fellow seniors Eli Greishem, Eli Olson and Zach Drake were great teammates and really good friends for Peyton and the other underclassmen. A 17-12 final record – which certainly seemed almost impossible on December 1 – is still one of the great in-season “turn arounds” I have witnessed in all my years of following basketball.

Peyton and Dad at 5 a.m. on the first day of practice senior year

A senior season to remember

Peyton and his fellow seniors really did save the best for last! A final record of 21-8 brought so many highlights and exciting times and was the best team record for the Toppers in over a decade. And yet records don’t really tell the entire story. In many ways, people will remember this season for the number of wins, or the media coverage that finally came (thank you WAND, SJ-R and, or even the four close losses to LSA. But so much more comes to my mind when I consider the past almost 14 weeks. Here are several memories:

Thanksgiving night – Peyton, Seth, Trevor and G burning off some turkey by shooting hoops and getting ready for PORTA

Finally getting over the hump against multiple teams – Mount Pulaski beat several teams for the first time in Peyton’s career – PORTA at Thanksgiving, at Warrensburg Latham in late November, at home against Athens in December and against Delavan in January. So much fun to get a win against these teams!

Blow-out victories – Following the loss to Heyworth at St. T in late December, coach Ryan Deibert challenged the Toppers to “win January” – and boy did they ever! Very lopsided victories became the norm. Defense was stellar. The boys were on quite a roll: 32-point win against Greenview; 44-point victory against Hartem; 40-point win against Sangamon Valley; 28-point victory against Delavan; 26-point wins against Tri-City and Springfield Lutheran. Fun times!

Peyton and G coming out for warm-ups

Road warriors – Mount Pulaski won several road games this year, something that is never easy to do, grabbing victories at Warrensburg, Raymond (Lincolnwood), Manito (Midwest Central), Riverton (in OT), and Mason City (Illini Central). Especially satisfying was the road win at Warrensburg, considering my wife and Peyton’s mom is a graduate of WLHS. That game also brought the most unique play of the year – a bad pass by PT for G (Gezus) ended up going off the head of one of the Cards and bounced right by to Peyton, where he turned without missing a beat and scored on a post move. WAND TV’s Gordon Voit dubbed the play the “Forehead Give and Go.”

Peyton throwing down a dunk at Lincolnwood

Dunks, Dunks, Dunks – I still remember Peyton’s first dunk in a game – at Greenview his junior year – I remember thinking, “I’m glad he finally got one.” This year brought many exciting slam dunks: The ultimate game winner against Illini Central in game 1 of the year, an important dunk late against PORTA, two awesome transition dunks at Warrensburg late in the game, a break away during a tight game at Lincolnwood (that almost became a technical), a rim cracking alley-oop from Seth Huff against Delavan, the first points of the Riverton game (a dunk captured by and some sweet dunks on the road against Illini Central and Illini Bluffs.

Peyton and Dad after his 1000 points against Heyworth

1,000 Point Club – on December 29 at St. Teresa HS, Peyton became just the 16th player in Mount Pulaski boys basketball history to join the 1,000 point club and would end his career w/ 1,221 points, finishing as the 7th all-time leading scorer at MPHS. The St. T crew publicly honored Peyton that night and my favorite father-son picture of his career happened just outside the locker room on that Friday in late December. It is pretty amazing to consider Peyton’s coach Jeff Clements scored 991 MORE points in his career, finishing with 2,212 points!

Playing through pain and injury – sadly, the last 10 games of Peyton’s HS career were played while battling a back injury that was really difficult to overcome at times. I still remember him calling me the morning of the Sangamon Valley game and telling me he could barely stand up. I’m still not sure how he actually played his final two home games against Tri-City and LuHi. And yet, my son showed me the heart of a warrior, battling through pain and discomfort! Huge thanks to Dr. Daniel Freesmeier and Dr. Stephanie Cluver for their help with this injury – many times almost spur of the moment.

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And yet, what really defines senior year in my book are the seniors. Each young man gave all they had for Mount Pulaski basketball and I did something I have never done before in my life (and will probably never do again) – I asked to speak to the team on the heels of the season’s most difficult, and final, loss (another really tough regional assignment: playing a 24-4 LSA team on their home court). Here are some of the words I shared:

Five Special Seniors:

Nate Dyer – “When I think about a great teammate, Nate Dyer comes to mind. You didn’t receive a ton of playing time, but yet I never heard a single word of complaint from you and you always seemed excited to enter the game. That is a great teammate!” Nate had one of the most amazing sequences of the season, when we were struggling against LSA at the St. T tourney, Nate came in the game late in the 3rd quarter and had his own 8-0 to get us right back in the game. Nate is going to do some big things in life and will continue his athletic career next year on the soccer field.

Trevor Hayes – “Teams absolutely hate playing against you Trevor – you are such a bulldog on defense! Every team needs a Trevor Hayes!” (even if they can’t pronounce your name correctly at LSA or on WCIA). He usually had to guard the other teams’ top perimeter player and rarely seemed to catch a break from the whistles. But he battled and fought and was a major reason why defense defined MPHS hoops this year. In fact, during one tight road game, an opposing player came out of the game and complained to his coach, “that #22 is crazy!” And he was right – a crazy good defender!

Gezus Oliver – “G – you have developed so much since you started your HS career at MPHS. You have colleges recruiting you and you will carry on the MPHS basketball legacy next year!” G overcame so much physical adversity stemming from a serious bike-car accident as a 6th grader, as well as the challenge of being one of very few African-American students at MPHS, and yet here he is – getting it done on the court and in the classroom! G scored 33 points against Athens to help us finally beat the Warriors, and he scored 20 points in the 1st quarter against Sullivan at St. T. 20 points in a quarter! He is in position to soar in life and I cannot wait to watch some more “G for 3” next year!

Seth Huff – “From a little guy who wondered if he was ever going to grow to the best point guard in my memory at Mount Pulaski, it has been a sheer joy to watch you grow and develop both on the court and off.” I still remember Seth coming over and playing with Peyton when they were little dudes – I remember Seth and Peyton playing biddy-ball together. On senior night against LuHi, Seth was the best player on the court! Weaving and slashing to the hoop for basket after basket, this ideal MP point guard had arrived! And now I see a young man who is positioned to do really good things in life – it has been a joy watching him grow up!

Senior night posters of Peyton and Seth

Peyton Taylor – “I could say a lot of things about you as a player, but tonight just one thing is on my mind – I’m so thankful I get to be your dad.” Peyton had a great HS career, but the points, rebounds and individual honors only tell part of the story. I love how he has developed as a young man and couldn’t be more excited to see what SIU brings next year, both in the classroom studying Criminal Justice and on the field throwing Discus, Shot and Hammer. I’m still beaming from ear to ear following his national letter of intent signing and press conference last November and cannot wait for March 9 and 10 when he will make his thespian débute in the school play.

On Saturday after the season ended, I took Peyton to one of my favorite lunch spots – the Lincoln Square Lounge in Decatur – where we enjoyed Gyro’s and Horseshoes and talked about his season and his career. We remembered together the games, the special plays and how we both wished the season were still going on. But when I asked him about his greatest memory of this season, his words really moved me: “it was probably all the time we spent together off the court – like when we all went to (coach) Eric’s house before the IC game.” That is maturity and proper perspective.

A Debt I can never repay

I am so thankful for the coaches who helped develop Peyton and these seniors through the years. A heartfelt thank you goes out to the following: Jamie Anderson and the biddy-ball program at Mount Pulaski; Chuck Sloan and Joel Vinson – summer/club coaches through 8th grade – both Peyton and Seth made huge strides as basketball players as part of the MOUNTI team. Brian Erlenbush became Peyton’s Junior High coach during 8th grade and now teaches him each morning as a faculty member at MPHS – his impact has been great both on and off the court.

Peyton entering the game at Riverton following the blow to his head

Eric Cowan became a varsity assistant this year and became one of Peyton’s mentors almost immediately – one of my favorite pictures of the year is Peyton wearing massive amounts of white bandage because of a cut to his head (no foul call btw) during OT in Riverton – Eric was quick to the rescue with his medical training and helped Peyton get back in the game! The late Bill Rucks was a varsity assistant during Peyton’s freshman year and really took Peyton under his wing and helped him grow as a post player – pretty cool to consider the first seven-footer in Fighting Illini history coached my son! Sadly, we lost coach Rucks in the summer of 2015, and yet his legacy lives on!

I cannot say enough about Ryan Deibert and Jeff Clements– they have meant so much to these seniors and as a dad, I’m beyond grateful for their time and investment. Both started working with Peyton one-on-one following his 8th grade season and helped him grow both on and off the court. Mount Pulaski High School is lucky and blessed to have these men leading our boys basketball program. Coach Deibert’s post-game speech Friday night in the locker room brought tears to my eyes, and reinforced his love for the young men he coaches. Just a word of advice for younger players and parents: Listen to these guys, they really do know what they are talking about!

Special blessings outside the program

 Something unexpected happened along the way of this basketball journey - I was blessed to meet some really wonderful people not a part of the Mount Pulaski program:

Peyton, Trevor and Seth with one of the refs

The Whistles: I really enjoyed getting to know many of the officials through the years, and it was especially moving this year when quality refs like Mike Wiley, Kurt Cuffle, and Mark Rotz went out of their way to speak words of affirmation and congratulation about Peyton to me personally. And let me take this opportunity to apologize for the many times through the years I gave referees a hard time – my punishment should be to become a referee! I know it is a thank-less, difficult job!

The Coaches: I’m pretty partial and loyal to our crew at MPHS but I have also enjoyed watching coaches who do it right and treat their players and their opponents with respect. Steve Dilley at Tri-City is a class act and always gave our players a positive word. Tony Wherley from Illini Central brought me to tears when I learned the affirming words he had for Peyton two weeks ago in Mason City. The St. Teresa program and coach Tom Noonan showed so much class – sending the basketball Peyton scored his 1,000th point with to MPHS for a home court ceremony and including a note of congratulations.

But best of all might be first year LSA coach Tom Saunches. Friday’s regional title game was intense from the start and Peyton seemed to be the target of one of the LSA players - some really rough play during the 1st half. I really didn’t handle that situation well myself – I was pretty fired up. Little did I know until after the game that not only did coach Saunches put a stop to the behavior, he went out of his way DURING halftime to apologize to Peyton, and following the game, Saunches again went above and beyond to both congratulate and console my son! That man is a class act – you got this hire right LSA!

The Media: The love from WAND’s Gordon Voit and Noah Newman seemed to be a consistent factor the last couple of years! Gordon’s story on the team and his interviews with Seth and Peyton on February 1 was excellent. The feature article on G, Seth and Peyton by SJ-R’s Dave Kane finally brought these seniors some positive publicity in the capital city. The crew covered three of our games and their postgame interviews WICS’s Donnie Tillman has always shown Peyton the love, but what would we do without our own Teena Lowery from Lincoln Daily News? Teena wrote game stories EVERY night and truly captured the heartbeat of Topper nation. We are crazy blessed to have Teena in our community and she is a true media rock star from my perspective!

What would I do different

I have thought a lot the past 36 hours about what I would do different – the past 4 years, maybe even the past 14 years and there is one thing that jumps out: Spend much more time simply being dad and less time being coach and/or critic. In fact, if you are reading this and you are the parent of a younger player, hear me loud and clear: only you can be mom or dad – so treasure that gift from God and let the coach be the coach and just be dad – or just be mom. Without a doubt, that is my greatest regret. I’m so glad I had a part of this journey and if anything, I would make the team and Peyton an even bigger priority in my schedule.

Where do we go from here?

It’s over and frankly I’m kind of sad. I will never again watch my 6’ 8” son play organized team basketball. The same goes for Seth, Trevor, and Nate, but I sure hope Gezus keeps playing at the college level. But guess what, I really believe there is a Bright future for MPHS boys basketball! I’m already excited for November and the 2018-2019 Toppers: Drew Martin, Brandon Kretzinger, Dustin Murphy and Grant Davis form a nice group with varsity experience. I’m really hoping for healthy returns to the court from Jonathan Shehorn and Zac Hinds. And several others will have the chance to contribute and earn time in the varsity rotation. You heard it here first: next year’s team WILL be fun to watch and WILL WIN more games than many anticipate!

Peyton signing is national letter of intent to do track and field at SIU

In the meantime, we are becoming a full-time Track and Field family! I can’t wait for Peyton’s final HS season – hoping for big results in Discus, Shot Put and Triple Jump. And next year, it’s on to Carbondale and division 1 track and field for SIU. My son has some pretty big dreams – too big to put into print – let’s just say I’m ready to watch him spread his wings and fly!

The journey is over, but wow am I glad it happened! And wow am I thankful for a seat in the front row game in and game out! After every game, the team ended their postgame chat with this: Toppers on three – 1, 2, 3 Toppers! Thank you boys for giving all you had! Thank you boys for a season so many will not soon forget!

Thank you boys for the journey!
Toppers on three – 1, 2, 3 Toppers!

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