Kyle Bolger was 7 years old when he watched the 2001 state championship game between Schaumburg and Thornwood on TV with his parents, brother Brandon and sister Heather.
"I recall (Thornwood's) Eddy Curry and (Schamburg's) Mark Pancratz, the ones everyone was talking about," Bolger said. "The main thing was to shut down Curry (the No. 4 pick in the 2001 NBA draft), the key to the Thornwood team."
Schaumburg's swarming and smothering defense did just that and the Saxons went on to upset heavily favored Thornwood 66-54.
"People still recall what a big accomplishment that was," Bolger said. "They always played hard, no matter what. They never gave up. They stuck together throughout that game. They were a great team that played together and played great defense. That's what our team does. We preach the same thing."
Matt Walsh, in his third year as Schaumburg's head coach, recalls the 2001 team, too. He was an assistant coach at Conant at the time. In fact, with a little luck or twist of fate, it could have been Conant rather than Schaumburg playing in the state final.
"Conant played Schaumburg in the sectional semifinal and lost in overtime. Conant had a shot at the buzzer to win in regulation time but it didn't go down. Schaumburg went on to win state. We realized how good they were," Walsh said.
"People still talk about it. There were some doubters because no Mid-Suburban League team had ever won state. But it wasn't a huge shock to a lot of people in the area. They played together so well. They were so good on defense. And they had strong leaders in Mark Pancratz and Tony Young. They also had 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-8 players. They weren't intimidated by Eddy Curry."
So that was 2001 and this is 2012. How good is this team? Schaumburg is 15-5 and in first place in the Mid-Suburban's West Division after beating Hoffman Estates 69-50 last Friday. The Saxons play at Glenbrook South on Tuesday and at Fremd on Friday.
"Our best days are ahead of us," Walsh said. "This is a good team that has a lot of room for improvement. Only good teams are the ones that are getting better. We play defense every night and we play well together. But we can improve both. The sky is the limit.
"How far can we go? Our past success gives us confidence. We go into every game thinking that we have opportunity to win. Two statistics that we talk about all the time are rebounding and eliminating turnovers. We have the pieces and the players to be as successful as we want to be."
The starting lineup is Bolger (11 ppg, 4 assists), a 6-foot-1 junior point guard; 6-foot-3 senior Christian Spandiary (15 ppg); 6-foot-5 junior Jimmy Lundquist (10 ppg); 6-foot-2 senior Michael Mallett (7 ppg); and 6-foot senior guard Joey Faleni (6 ppg).
Coming off the bench are 5-foot-9 senior Thomas Byrne, the backup point guard; 6-foot-1 junior Cole Reyes, 6-foot-3 junior Bobby Green and 5-foot-11 senior Justin Hill.
Two weeks ago, Bolger scored 13 points and converted two free throws with eight seconds to play to lift Schaumburg past Barrington 49-46 to claim sole possession of first place in the Mid-Suburban West. Spandiary scored 17 points, Lundquist 10. Against Hoffman Estates last Friday, Spandiary scored 14, Mallett 13, Lundquist 12.
"We have great team chemistry, no fighting," Bolger said. "We put in hard work to get better. We play hard but we're all friends at the end of the day. We all grew up playing together in sixth, seventh and eight grade on the Schaumburg Junior Saxons. We've known each other since elementary school and middle school."
Bolger is familiar with the Schaumburg way of doing things. His brother Brandon was an all-conference and all-area player at Schaumburg. His father runs the feeder program. A two-year starter, Kyle is described by Walsh as one of the team's leaders.
"I see myself as one of the leaders of the team," Kyle said. "My job is to get our team to win, whatever it takes."
Bolger and his teammates remember last year, when the team was 18-12 and lost to Niles North by one point in the sectional final. The experience left a disappointing taste in their mouths. They are determined to do better this season.
"Last year, we knew we could have gone farther than we did. It was upsetting to us. We were a better team than that," Bolger said. "We had a big lead against Niles North and lulls on defense gave them momentum at the end of the game. We had a last-second shot. It went in and out. That made everybody feel even worse. We felt we were right there.
"We knew we had to come back and work even harder than last year. We had to step it up because we want to go father this year. We're more experienced this year. I'm the point guard and I have to get people to score. Then they make me look better. The kids know how to score on this team. I have to give them open shots."
Walsh, 36, a Conant graduate of 1993, played basketball at Conant, coached feeder teams while attending Dominican University, then assisted coach Tom McCormack at Conant for 13 years. When coach Bob Williams left Schaumburg, he interviewed for the job and was hired.
"I came to a great program," he said. "I was aware of the great tradition. I was concerned with adding to it. These kids have a culture of hard work and high standards. Kids are held accountable to do the right thing and not always the easy thing."
Walsh grew up and was raised in Schaumburg. He learned the game and was taught the blue-collar values while participating in the park district system. He recognized that parents teach the values of hard work, that they are part of the team.
"It is a blue-collar mentality," he said. "Kids have bought into being unselfish and understanding that if they buy into the philosophy, the rewards of being part of a successful team are ahead of them."