Williamsville embracing underdog role heading into state tournament

Mar. 6—CHAMPAIGN — If you look at the first few minutes of Monday night's Class 2A Springfield Super-Sectional, Williamsville should not be where it is today, playing for a spot in the state championship game.

The Bullets trailed Macomb 16-2 after leading most of their previous postseason opponents wire to wire. Save for its one-point win against Alton Marquette in the sectional final, Williamsville's playoff experience had been fairly easy. This was the first time their backs were really up against the wall.

"There was never any panic. Never any doubt. They just believed in each other and stayed the course," Williamsville coach Nick Beard said Tuesday. "Our motto is: Never out-worked. We talk about the three C's every night: compete, composure and confidence. We had to have composure (Monday night), we had to be confident in each other and we had to start competing a little more."

The Bullets cut the deficit to six points by halftime and ultimately pulled out a 36-32 win, a victory that Beard called "this group in a nutshell."

Williamsville's run to the state tournament, for just the second time in program history and first since 1991, turned into an unlikely one when disaster struck three weeks into the season.

The Bullets started the season 8-0, beating opponents by an average of 18-plus points per game.

"We were just pummeling teams," Beard said. "I felt at that point that we were one of the best teams in the state."

Williamsville hosted West Central on Dec. 22, and junior point guard Blake Shoufler broke his ankle. He was one of only two returners who had any significant varsity experience. The Bullets went on to drop that game for their first loss of the season.

"Nasty injury," Beard said. "Absolutely heartbreaking for our team. Obviously for Blake, his family, our program and our community, it was a rough couple weeks."

The rest of the regular season, the Bullets struggled to find their footing. They lost three games in a row the first week of February and were subsequently given a No. 5 seed in their regional.

Following that third consecutive loss, a 51-46 setback to Maroa-Forsyth, Beard made a drastic change. He implemented a 1-3-1 trapping zone on defense. This is his 11th year at Williamsville, and that was the first time he'd ever used a zone defense.

The idea was to "just cause havoc," and it's worked. The Bullets have gone 9-1 since the switch and have been "turning teams over like crazy." They managed to head into the postseason with a 21-9 record and some momentum.

"It's as selfless of a group I've coached. They don't care about individual accolades," Beard said. "Part of it that probably helps is their inexperience. They didn't know any better, so when I decided to make the switch, there wasn't anybody to question anything. They haven't been in these situations. Whatever I've said and gone with, they've piggybacked on."

All the while, Shoufler has been just as big of a leader as if he was on the court. He leads with his voice and preparation, watching film and running ideas by his coach. Beard said Shoufler has the highest basketball IQ on the team.

"I know it's hard for him, but these are his buddies, his peers, his teammates, and he's trying to be as positive as he can for them," Beard said. "He's got as big a role as he can have. He's doing everything he possibly can to help our team."

And Shoufler's teammates have returned the favor. The Bullets have taken to social media with another slogan of "Do it for 2," referencing Shoufler's jersey number.

"It's really difficult when you lose him in the way we did. At that point, most people, including ourselves, thought our season was derailed," Beard said. "They're good basketball players, but they're better people and great students in the classroom. They haven't forgotten their teammate and buddy, Blake, and they try to include him in everything. I think that's pretty cool stuff."

The odds have been stacked against the Bullets all year. After Shoufler went down. After losing three in a row late in the season. And even now, on the verge of making the state championship game for the first time in program history.

Williamsville (26-9) takes on Phillips (23-9) in the 2A state semifinals at 2 p.m. Thursday in State Farm Center.

"I don't think many people will give us a chance on Thursday afternoon," Beard said, "but I don't think many people have given us a chance the last two months either. We're OK with that underdog role."