CARRIER MILLS -- The undefeated Carrier Mills-Stonefort Junior High Wildcats boys basketball team will have a shot at the Class S state title if they win their game against Altamont Lutheran Thursday, after an unbelievable season that so far is 29-0.
Coach Allen Jackson returned several starters to this year's team after losing several eighth graders from his 2017 state tournament team. That team compiled a 22-4 record and lost to Cisne in the first round of the 2017 state tournament.
As seventh graders, his players were major contributors to the eighth-grade team. Even Jackson, though, could not have predicted just how bright these now-eighth-graders would shine.
"As a coach you set goals for your team, but it is never to go undefeated. You want your players to practice hard enough that they are always competitive, and that type of hard work will put you in a position to win," Jackson said.
The Wildcats opened this season on Oct. 23 with a 69-23 win against conference foe Galatia. Jackson's team rolled through the regular season and right into a Dec. 13 matchup with Meridian. At the time, both teams were undefeated, and on paper, it looked like it would be a tough game. But the Wildcats stormed out of the locker room, took command of the game, won by 25 points, and brought their record to 15-0. As the season rolled on, though, the mounting undefeated record somehow escaped much outside notice. It seemed like the Wildcats would be the best kept secret in southern Illinois.
Still, other potential rivals started to take note.
"I was a little concerned that word about how good our team is had gotten out," Superintendent Bryce K. Jerrell said. "During the Meridian game, we had a high school junior varsity coach along with a school board member from a neighboring school district show up to watch us play."
Not only did the team play, but they continued to win. After winning the regular season conference title, they won the New Simpson Hill Tournament and the Little GEC Tournament. In the Regional, the Wildcats defeated Galatia before defeating Crab Orchard 66-23 in the championship game.
Grade School Principal Geoff Absher said the team had performed at the highest level possible coming into the state tournament.
"We played the maximum number of regular season and tournament games you can play. We finished the regular season 25-0 and after winning the Regional Championship we headed into the State Tournament at 27-0," Absher said.
Now, with a 67-54 win over Cairo in the first round and a 35-25 victory over Aviston in the second, the team is one game away from the state championship and two from a perfect season.
The Junior Wildcats have outscored their opponents 1,711 to 729. The best-kept secret in southern Illinois now heads into the final two rounds of the state tournament with a lot of confidence.
"From this point on, records won't really matter," Jackson said. "It will come down to heart, determination, and hard work, and I am confident my team will compete until the final buzzer sounds."
The Carrier Mills-Stonefort Junior Wildcats will play Altamont Lutheran at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at Rend Lake College in Ina. A win will put them in the championship at 4 p.m. Saturday. The third-place game will be 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Staff writer Travis DeNeal contributed to this report.