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Here's To The Winners...

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And the secret to their success

The proverbial references are about water, or blood. As in, "There must be something in the water in that town." Or, "Basketball (or football, or pick your sport) is in that school's blood."

But something — or more often, someone — has to get the juices flowing to create a high school sports dynasty, a perennial power, the kind of program that competes for, and wins, state championships in multiple decades.

The Peoria area has a number of such programs, many of which jump instantly to mind. Metamora football. Manual basketball. Central basketball. Richwoods football. Notre Dame soccer.

Peoria and its surrounding communities also claim a number of once-dominant programs that either have fallen on hard times or at least have been thrown back among the general population. Manual baseball. Limestone girls basketball. Manual track and field. Richwoods swimming and diving. Pekin wrestling. Morton softball.

Then you have the quieter long-term excellence in sports that grab fewer headlines. Cross country at Notre Dame, Elmwood, Brimfield and Metamora. Boys tennis and girls basketball at Morton, Metamora. Notre Dame swimming. Richwoods girls basketball. The bat-and-ball sports at Limestone. There are many more.

Why do some engines just keep humming along while they sputter at certain schools, in certain sports, year after year? What are the winners' secrets?

"The secrets are simple," said Chuck Westendorf, assistant coach for six large-school basketball championships over a decade (1994-97 at Manual and 2003-04 at Peoria High). "Get a lot of talent."

"Westy" quickly conceded he was being mostly facetious and he cited a variety of factors that were repeated by a host of coaches, from a broad spectrum of sports, from throughout the area.

"It's the discipline you instill," Westendorf said. "It's the program. It's the offseason work. It's A, B, C, D. It's all of the above."

He could have said continuity. The most common denominator you'll find among the "haves" in high school sports is strong coaching that spans years. That often comes in the form of one dominant figure staying in the job for decades. Think Dick Van Scyoc ruling the Manual basketball roost for 28 seasons or Chuck Buescher doing the same at Central for a quarter-century. Notre Dame's Mike Sullivan easily predates the Bergan-Spalding merger coaching cross country and boys track and has produced state champions (teams or individuals) in four decades. Denny Winkler ran Manual boys track for 31 seasons and lost all of 23 dual meets (he won 505) — and that was practicing in the hallways until Winkler oversaw the building of a practice track at the southside Peoria school just before his 2000 retirement.

Even Pat Ryan, yet to hit his 50th birthday, has 22 seasons and counting at the Metamora football helm. That's nothing to Ryan's one-time teacher Gene Jones, who started coaching cross country runners in the late 1970s at the sports-crazed Woodford County town with its single stoplight.

Every coach mentioned, save Ryan and career assistant Westendorf, is a Hall of Famer. Retirement is not a condition of eligibility in the cross-country world. Retirement, however, is inevitable, and what a school does when one of its institutions steps aside is the No. 1 predictor of whether the dominance will continue.

We look to the dominant football programs from their respective side of the river for the greatest examples.

Richwoods has not only kept its program guided by the same coaching tree for 50 years, it implicitly requires the successors to serve decades as assistants before they run the show.

"Each coach has his little things he is going to tweak and put his own mark on, but each of us have learned from hall-of-fame coaches and realize the solid base that creates Richwoods football," said Roland Brown, who boasts 10 playoff wins in his first three years on the job. "You want to do well so you can make your former head coaches proud."

All those coaches are around. Tom Peeler (21 seasons; Class 5A title in his final season of 1984), Rod Butler (1988 Class 5A champ; .848 winning percentage in nine seasons) and Doug Simper (.669 in 14 seasons) all talk regularly to Brown and the Knights.

"The coaches and players were very excited to see Coach Tom Peeler, who showed up on our first day of contact this year," Brown said. "He is the reason we are all here and the reason the tradition continues at Richwoods. Our practice field is named after him because he made us understand the most important part of the season takes place during practice, not the games."

The same takes place at Metamora.

"Mr. Stromberger is in his 80s and is still really supportive," Ryan said of "the father of Metamora football," Marty Stromberger, whose pair of undefeated, pre-playoffs teams paved the way for John Helmick to win a Class 3A title in 1975.

"After that, in just the second year of playoffs, things really took off," Ryan said of a program that has played in 10 state-champion games, seven under Ryan. "Then it was like, 'This is something we can do.' "

Between Helmick and Ryan came Rich Koehler, a Peru native who won no playoff games in seven seasons. While Ryan remembers Koehler fondly as "an absolutely fantastic man," Koehler does exhibit a coaching move that tends to derail prep dynasties — going outside the program.

The greatest example comes from Manual basketball. Andrew Johnson was brought in from Chicago-area power Proviso East to succeed Wayne McClain in 2000-01. Like Koehler, he was personable, but his deviation from the Van Scyoc system was a two-year disaster before the program was brought back onto its coaching tree, first by Tim Kenny and then to current coach Derrick Booth.

"We still have the same system we had here under Coach Van," Booth said, adding that the owner of 856 wins "never misses a home game" as he nears his 90th birthday. "He has slowed down a little, but his mind is as sharp as ever. When he talks, the kids listen. So do I."

The sheer magnetism of the program patriarchs, if you will, is what longtime Journal Star sports editor Kirk Wessler cites when defining what makes some schools stand out.

"I call this the 'cult of personality' in coaching," Wessler said. "I believe it's the single most important element in a dominant high school program, especially public schools with attendance boundaries. They become the coach every kid — and every kid's parent — wants to play for. They create an environment where the kids in their district grow up wanting to play that sport for that coach: football, swimming, cross country, baseball, whatever."

And they worked.

"Corky is the hardest-working coach I've ever seen, by far," retired Woodruff swim coach Jim Runkle said of his rival and friend, Corky King, who coached the bulk of Richwoods' 33-year streak of conference boys titles. The Knights have won fewer than half the Mid-State 6 crowns since King left at the end of the 1990s.

"I believe we flat-out outwork people, pure and simple," Sullivan said after crediting parents and assistant coaches as primary reasons Notre Dame keeps making good on its "We run this town," slogan.

Ryan and Richwoods' Todd Hursey agree on the family factor. The latter is first-year athletics director at Richwoods after assisting on the Knights' last two girls basketball state champions (2005, '09) and serving as head coach for three seasons. "The family contributions, financially and physically, are huge for our school and teams," Hursey said.

"The biggest thing we've got going now," Ryan said, "is there's a tremendous amount of trust. I think when parents drop them off, they know we're going to do right by the kids. There are still playing-time gripes — there will always be those — but we've generally got tremendous support in the community."

Those who don't work as consistently, Westendorf said, enjoy only blips of success.

"There are some schools out there where it kind of runs in cycles," he said. "I think it depends on the leadership of the program. Some of these kids have had coaches who weren't interested in the job. Most people can do it a year or two. You get to 10 years, it's not luck anymore. "It's got to be the system. It's got to be the coaches."

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