Sunday, April 6, 2008
Notre Dame junior Austin Greer believes the Bulldogs would not have won the Class 4 state basketball title this past March without senior Ryan Willen.
"He's that player that pushes us above everybody else," Greer said. "It's like, 'We have him and you don't.' He's our big guy. He's going to control the boards and he's going to score a lot of points. If you take him out of the mix, we're still a pretty good team. But with him, we're a great team."
Willen is the Southeast Missourian Player of the Year for the second straight year.
The 6-foot-8 center averaged 23.3 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game while helping Notre Dame to its first state basketball title since 1987.
Willen, who will attend Division I Lafayette College next fall on a basketball scholarship, was flattered when he heard that Greer said he was the reason the team won.
"That's a nice thing for him to say," Willen said. "I thought that more than anything I was able to help the team with leadership. Just kind of leading by example. It didn't matter to me if I was scoring or if someone else was scoring, as along as we were winning games."
Willen had his wisdom teeth removed about a week after the season, and while relaxing after the procedure, he started reflecting on his career. The center said he never reflected on the end of his career before that -- even when his Bulldogs headed to Columbia for the final four.
"I didn't think about the end," Willen said. "I thought about how we needed to win those two games. It wasn't until a week after the season. ... I was just kind of sitting at home and I was like, 'We'll, that's the end of my high school basketball career.' And I think I looked at it the right way because we had to get those games won."
Greer said Willen is one of the goofiest and funniest players on the team. He said the senior often will yell crazy things at his friends and teammates when he passes by them in the Notre Dame hallways on his way to class. He also spends most of the time during weight training making jokes. But Willen took basketball seriously this season.
"This year he really took it upon himself to lead this team and to go through it with the right mindset that we were not there for a good time," Greer said. "We were there for business, and that's what we want to do -- win a state tournament."
Making his team better
Willen missed the Bulldogs' first five games with a stress fracture in his ankle. Notre Dame posted a 2-3 record without him, including losing to Sikeston by 33 points and Charleston by 30 points in the SEMO Conference tournament. The Bulldogs also lost to Sikeston by five points at home.
After Willen returned, the Bulldogs compiled a 22-3 record. They beat Charleston twice by a combined 23 points and beat Sikeston by 23 in the Class 4 District 1 title game.
He scored 40 points in a win over Charleston in the semifinals of the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament.
"I would say the Charleston game was his best game," Greer said. "He got a lot of open looks and he earned a lot of points that game. Not many people in high school can score 40. That's really hard with only 8-minute quarters. That was by far his best game.
"He's had so many good games they all just run together."
Losing to Jackson
Two of the three losses Notre Dame suffered with Willen in the lineup were against Jackson.
The first was an eight-point loss to the Indians in the championship game of the Christmas Tournament. The other was a two-point loss at home Jan. 11.
Willen said looking back on it, the second loss was the best thing that could have happened.
"When we lost to Jackson in the Christmas tournament, that was tough, especially without Ty [Williams]," Willen said. "We felt like we could've won that game. We felt like it kind of slipped out of our hands. We were ahead by about 10 at one point and we just stopped playing defense and Jake [Leet] just started shooting the ball amazingly. That hurt. But for them to come back and beat us [a second time], that was probably the best thing that happened to us as a team.
"After that second loss to Jackson, we started working. We started coming in every morning and shooting at like 6:30 and at the latest 7 o'clock, 7:15 and just working on our game. Everyone started working harder. We started practicing harder. Coach started getting after us harder. And I think from that point on, we put in a lot of time and it paid off. It made us a better team and closer to each other."
After the second loss to Jackson, the Bulldogs posted 15 consecutive wins to close out the season.
A career to remember
When Willen reflects on his career, many fun times come to mind.
"We became a family as a team. I'll remember that more than anything," Willen said. "I'll remember laughing at some stuff coach [Paul] Hale said. And hanging out with the guys and going to John [Unterreiner[']s] house after we'd win big games and standing out there with everyone. Practicing. Shooting early. Going out to eat and stuff. The state trip. And just spending time with my friends."
Willen helped Notre Dame to three state titles. In addition to his recent basketball title, he also won two state soccer championships, including one this past fall, which makes Notre Dame the first school in Missouri to win a soccer and basketball title in the same year, Willen said.
Now that Willen's Notre Dame career has ended, a new chapter begins at Lafayette.
And Lafayette men's basketball coach Fran O'Hanlon said he believes Willen will be able to help out the team right away.
Still, Willen said he'll always remember the fun he had at Notre Dame. He hopes the school will remember him favorably, too.
"Hopefully people will remember me as a fun guy who worked hard and was able to accomplish goals that he set," Willen said. "Whenever a team wins a state championship at Notre Dame, they put a banner up on the wall with all the names of the players. So hopefully, I'll be remembered more as just my name on the wall. I want to be the good person, the hard worker, the good athlete."