Before the Illinois High School Association split its boys basketball tournament from two classes to four, there was never a more unlikely Class A title winner than Nauvoo-Colusa.
Don't tell that to Reno Pinkston, the coach of the Vikings, or any of the players who were part of a surprising and remarkable run 20 years ago that wasn't equaled before or since and ended in a state championship in Peoria's Carver Arena.
"We believed in each other," Pinkston said. "I know it's cliche, but we always thought we'd find a way to win. That's what special groups do. They believed in each other."
"We thought we could beat anyone," said Joe Wilson, a junior on the team. "We didn't think of ourselves as underdogs. We knew we were good."
It just took the rest of the state more time to find that out.
Upsets and comebacks
Watching Warsaw win a state championship the year before gave the Vikings confidence that they could do well. Nauvoo-Colusa went 23-6 in 1996-97, losing three times to the Wildcats.
"When Warsaw won it, we all thought, ‘Why can't we?'" said David Griffiths, a senior guard on the team. "With our defense, to us, there were no games that were upsets."
"We knew we had a great team going into the year," Wilson said. "Our defense was great. We trusted each other. All of us could shoot, and we were very unselfish.
"I don't know if kids play like we used to, but any time we had a chance to get a pickup game together, we would. That's all we did. We lived and breathed basketball."
Nauvoo-Colusa had a 24-3 record entering the start of the postseason, but it was not ranked among the 16 teams in the Associated Press' final poll. The school's only regional championship was won in 1979.
The tiny school with an enrollment of 136 students won eight straight postseason games, and the last six victories came in a variety of unforgettable ways.
First, Nauvoo-Colusa needed a 3-pointer by reserve Brian Griffiths, David's younger brother, with 29 seconds left to force overtime with Brown County at the Bushnell-Prairie City Sectional. Doug Siegfried scored seven points in the extra period, including a layup after a steal with seven seconds left to seal a 60-57 victory.
"I don't even know how the Griffiths kid could see the basket on the one that tied the game," Brown County coach Van Wilson told The Herald-Whig after the game.
David Griffiths was the hero in the sectional championship game. His 3-pointer from the left wing as time expired gave Nauvoo-Colusa a 53-50 victory over No. 14-ranked Quincy Notre Dame.
After Andy Liesen's steal and layup tied the score for the Raiders, the Vikings held the ball for nearly a minute before Siegfried found David Griffiths for the game-winner.
"I wasn't expecting the ball," David Griffiths said. "Usually Doug would either finish or dump the ball to one of our big guys, and over two or three years of practicing that play, I don't think I ever got the ball. But I just caught it and shot it.
"You know, I always had a strict midnight curfew, but that game went late. We were driving back from Bushnell, and I called my dad asked if he minded that I was going to be home late. He said, ‘Son, you can come home any time you want.'"
Next was undefeated and fourth-ranked A-C Central, which was no match for the Vikings in a 59-56 victory in the Macomb Super-sectional. Nauvoo-Colusa raced to a 13-2 lead and never relinquished it to earn a date in Peoria.
Knocking off Goliath
The Vikings trailed Chrisman by 15 points in the second quarter of their quarterfinal game in Peoria, but they clawed their way back and took the lead with 1:12 remaining and won 59-52.
Undefeated and No. 2-ranked Farmington was the semifinal opponent. Nauvoo-Colusa trailed by 11 points to start the fourth quarter but came back to win 48-47. Wilson was fouled with one second left and, after missing the first of two free throws, made the second shot.
The Vikings would get their shot at Goliath.
Spring Valley Hall returned several players from the team that lost to Warsaw in the 1997 Class A title game, and the No. 1-ranked Red Devils steamrolled everybody on their way to the title game.
"People can call it cocky, but after the semifinal, I remember that David Griffiths had a cell phone and called his grandpa," Pinkston said. "He said, ‘I'll call you tonight after we win it all.'"
David Griffiths said he wasn't nervous at all before playing Hall. Instead, he spent much of the third-place game sitting in the locker room talking with Pinkston.
"For whatever reason, it was weirdly calming," he said. "We knew what we were supposed to do."
Nauvoo-Colusa came back from an eight-point third quarter deficit to win 45-39 to claim the championship. The Vikings had beaten three undefeated teams and eliminated the No. 1, No. 2, No. 4 and No. 14 teams in the state poll.
Hall All-Stater Shawn Jeppson averaged 24 points per game, but he cut his hand on a television camera in pregame ceremonies and received three stitches at halftime. He finished with just nine points. The cut attracted much of the postgame discussion, but the Vikings today still scoff at its importance.
"I didn't even realize his hand was cut," Wilson said.
"We had played guards before who were really good, and to be honest, we were more worried about their bigs," David Griffiths said.
"What people don't want to bring up was that Joe Wilson had a cut on his shooting hand, and he had mono," Pinkston said. "We walked out there, in front of a sold-out arena, and those guys loved that atmosphere.
"After the game, we were sitting in the locker room saying, ‘Can you believe how great this is?'"
Nauvoo-Colusa High School no longer exists. It was closed in 2007.
High school students in the Nauvoo-Colusa School District now attend classes in Warsaw and play for the West Hancock co-op, and the boys basketball team is coached by Pinkston. The building that housed the home court for the Vikings is now called Nauvoo-Colusa Junior High School.
A reunion of the 1998 team is planned for Saturday afternoon at the junior high school after West Hancock's game against Biggsville West Central.
Wilson, who works for an investment bank in Urbandale, Iowa, and David Griffiths, who manages a group of grain elevators while living in Colusa, both plan to attend the festivities.
"The stories will be better than they were before," Pinkston said with a laugh. "Everything gets better 20 years later. It'll be fun. It was some of the greatest moments of our lives."
He's ready to be ribbed by stories from his old players, and he'll grin when he's told how soft he is now compared to the fiery 35-year-old who coached the state champs.
He'll also have a few words for his team.
"Thank you for what you did for this community and what you did for me," Pinkston said. "People are still talking about that legendary squad. You become a legend when you do something unusual."
It wasn't so unusual.
Not if you ask the Vikings.