Pinckneyville is 26-4 and isn't ranked among the top 25 teams in Class 2A in Illinois. Pinckneyville unranked? You're kidding, right? Quick, name the five high schools in the state with the most tradition. Centralia, Thornton, Quincy, Mount Vernon and... Pinckneyville.
Duster Thomas coached Pinckneyville to the 1948 state championship and four thirds, including three 33-3 seasons in a row from 1953 to 1955. In 19 years, his teams were 460-128. The gym, built in the 1950s and named after Thomas, remains a classic design.
Don Stanton was 116-31 in five years at the school. Dick Corn was 682-225 in 31 years, winning state titles in 1994 and 2001, finishing second in 1988 and fourth in 2006. Current coach Bob Waggoner produced a fourth-place finisher in the 2008 state tournament.
"This team deserves to be ranked among the top 10 in the state," Waggoner said. "People have asked me why we aren't ranked. How do you respond? It's out of our hands. Personally, I don't worry about rankings. The most important thing is to win. If you win, accolades will come."
Maybe it's because Pinckneyville doesn't have an outstanding player, a Division I recruit or an All-State candidate. Maybe it's because Harrisburg and Breese Central received so much preseason hoopla. Breese Central currently is ranked No. 1 in the state in one poll. Maybe it's because Herrin would have received more attention if it hadn't moved to Class 3A.
Or maybe it's because Pinckneyville hasn't been able to get past neighboring Du Quoin to earn another trip to Peoria. Two years ago, Pinckneyville was 24-6 but lost to Du Quoin in the sectional semifinal. Last year, the Panthers were 20-8 and lost to Du Quoin in the regional final.
In his fifth season, Waggoner isn't concerned with the past or this year's rankings. His Panthers tuned up for the Eldorado sectional by beating 25-game winner Trico 50-45 in the regional final last Friday night, then dispatched Olney 38-30 on Tuesday night in their sectional semifinal to extend their winning streak to 15 games.
"We do all the little things. Defensively, we're very good. Our offense is catching up to our defense," Waggoner said. "We're playing our best basketball right now and we're healthy. We aren't the most athletic team. We aren't as athletic as the two fourth-place teams but we are every bit as gritty and more physical and have more ability to defend.
"We don't have an outstanding player, a first-team All-State player. We are just a solid basketball team, not flashy. We just play solid defense. Seven seniors give us a lot of experience. But I am pleasantly surprised at how we have jelled and come together. I knew we had that ability but they never showed it as a group before."
Waggoner said his team gained confidence when it went 5-0 and won its eighth straight championship at Benton's Mid-Winter Invitational Tournament in mid-January.
Pinckneyville is led by 5-foot-11 senior guard Hunter Queen (13 ppg), 5-foot-9 senior point guard Bryant Shute (8 ppg, 3 assists), 6-foot junior Dylan Hardin (11 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Peyton Nippe (10 ppg, 5 rpg) and 6-foot-4 junior Chris Priebe (6 ppg, 4 rpg). Keegan Kellerman, a 6-foot, 250-pound senior (4 ppg, 4 rpg) who will play football at McKendree College, comes off the bench.
Against Trico, coached by former Pinckneyville star Shane Hawkins, Hardin scored 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting and Priebe added 10 points.
"If we are going to advance in the state tournament, our inside play must be good," Waggoner said. "Our guard play has been consistent. But Priebe, Hardin and Nippe must produce inside for us."
The guards, Queen and Shute, have stood out, averaging fewer than nine turnovers per game. And the defense has allowed only 40 points per game and permitted opponents to convert only 22 percent of their three-point shots.
Waggoner, who also serves as the school's athletic director, is a 1989 graduate of Lawrenceville. He and former Lawrenceville basketball coach Ron Felling's son Shane went to high school together. He was head coach at Columbia, joined Corn's staff at Pinckneyville in 2006 and became head coach when Corn retired in 2008.
"I think people have lost touch with the rankings with the four-class system," Waggoner said, still trying to explain why Pinckneyville isn't ranked at all. "Schools move up and down. It's hard to keep track of them.
Our enrollment is 390. We've lost 140 students since I have been here in the last five years. The Illinois High School Association changed the number this year. If it had stayed the same, we could have been in Class 1A next