By MATT SCHUCKMANHerald-Whig Sports Editor
MENDON, Ill. With his wedding anniversary falling during the week the Unity boys basketball team made its first trip to the state tournament, Mustangs coach Keith Carothers told his wife, Amy, they'd celebrate when the hysteria ended.
Realistically, he knew she wouldn't wait that long.
"She likes to pull some surprises," Carothers said.
What she pulled off was more than a surprise. It was a monumental shocker.
Carothers' wife hatched a plan with his parents, Bryan and Bobbie Carothers, to fly from Helena, Mont., and have them in Peoria when Carothers and the Mustangs arrived back at the hotel that Thursday after their shootaround and subsequent team banquet.
"I told my wife not to come up on Thursday or bring the kids, because we've got a lot of work to do, and we'd be watching film and getting a lot of last-minute things done," Carothers said. "So she shows up anyway. She comes into our hotel room that night, and I thought to myself, ‘Aw, come on, we've got work to do.' Then my mom walked in right behind her. That just changed everything."
It made Carothers appreciate the moment, not stress about it.
"My parents have done everything for me and my brother and my sister," Carothers said. "They went everywhere to watch us play. We both played in college, and they traveled everywhere. They're huge supporters of us. So them traveling here to see this isn't a shock.
"Knowing they pulled it off so quick and made it happen, it made the moment greater than it already was."
The run the Mustangs enjoyed already was pretty remarkable.
Seven years removed from a 2-23 season in Carothers' first year on the bench, the Mustangs made history by becoming the first team in school history -- boys or girls in any sport -- to win a state trophy after finishing third in the Class 1A state tournament.
"I can't explain what it means to me and to these boys to have accomplished this," said Carothers, named the 2014 Herald-Whig Coach of the Year. "It's a dream come true in so many ways. You make it a goal and strive to reach that goal. To finally see it happen, just incredible."
It's been a long road from Montana to Mendon, but it's one Carothers knows has been worth the journey.
While his brother, Greg, played football at the University of Washington, Carothers played basketball at Montana State-Northern and then spent one year playing professionally in Germany.
During that time, his wife, Amy, whom he had met during a summer living with a friend in Macomb while she was attending Western Illinois University, moved back to this area. When his playing career ended, he joined her in the Midwest and started teaching and coaching.
"It's a long, roundabout story," Carothers said.
But it comes with quite an ending.
The Mustangs suffered through four straight losing seasons under Carothers before finishing 19-11 in 2012 -- the program's first winning season since 1998. Last year, they reached the 20-victory plateau and made it to the sectional championship game for the first time since 1990.
Although that created high expectations, there was plenty of work to be done.
First, the Mustangs had to overcome playing without 6-foot-6 forward Lane Davis the first five games as he recovered from a hip injury. Then there was the myriad of talented teams in front of them in the postseason.
It started in the regional, where Unity was seeded second behind Central. In the sectional, there was a showdown with Liberty, which had beaten Payson Seymour, the preseason No. 1-ranked team in the state, and looked like a potential final four team. In the super-sectional, Waterloo Gibault had cut its teeth against a tough schedule and supposedly was more battle-tested than Unity.
The Mustangs outlasted them all.
"Coach believed in us, and we believed in ourselves," senior guard Alex Blickhan said. "We felt we could overcome anything."
The only thing Unity couldn't contend with was Mooseheart's size in the state semifinals as the Mustangs lost to the eventual state champion.
It didn't spoil what they had gone to Peoria to do.
That was represent the community and the school with pride. A 59-43 victory over Sesser-Valier in the third-place game did that.
It left Carothers almost at a loss for words.
"It's been so special," he said. "It's been amazing."
Having his family there to witness it was priceless.
"To be able to share that with them was an extra special piece," Carothers said. "To have my wife and kids there was special. To have my parents and sister there capped it off."