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Magical run for Normal Community ends with 4A state title loss to Homewood-Flossmoor

Normal Community
From left, Normal Community's Kobe Walker, Dexter Niekamp, Noah Cleveland and Conner Smith huddle up in the Ironmen's Class 4A state title game against Homewood-Flossmoor. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

Bryce Heard the message and answered the call. So did the rest of his Homewood-Flossmoor teammates. 

They heard about Normal Community’s size, a continuous talking point among Illinois high school basketball fans all season long. In response, the Vikings used their speed and a hot-shooting night to counter the Ironmen’s brawn in the biggest game of the year, winning the Class 4A State Title 60-48 at the State Farm Center in Champaign.

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Both teams’ highest finish at the IHSA State Tournament resulted in a second-place trophy. The Vikings made sure that their state title drought ended by splashing home eight threes in Saturday’s win.

“I told everybody from the beginning of the year that this is just a special group,” Homewood-Flossmoor head coach Jamere Dismukes said. “We envisioned this. We knew we would be here so I'm just happy for these guys, now they are truly the best team that's ever walked through Homewood-Flossmoor halls.”

Normal Community finished its season 32-6, ending a run that will never be forgotten in front of over a thousand orange shirts in the stands. 

“We had so much fun this year from the first game of the year till now,” Ironmen head coach Dave Witzig said. “ We traveled all over the state playing the best teams and we ran into the best team in the state tonight.”

Bryce Heard
Homewood-Flossmoor's Bryce Heard flies in for a dunk in Saturday's 4A state title game. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

Homewood-Flossmoor dared the Ironmen to beat them at their own game. The Vikings executed their game plan with flying colors: make Normal Community move the ball away from the post, shoot 3-pointers and play fast with the Vikings in transition. 

The Ironmen could do all those things. But they couldn’t do it at the level of the No. 2-ranked team in the state. NCHS shot 6-for-25 behind the arc to Homewood-Flossmoor’s 8-for-14 mark while the Vikings outscored the Ironmen on fast breaks 12-2.  

Three of those triples came from the 6-foot-6 junior guard Heard, a top-100 player in the country with 19 Division I offers, who finished with a game-high 21 points to go with 10 rebounds. 

“It's just a great feeling to come back and win state like this,” Heard said. “No other feeling like this.”

It was clear that he was ready to meet the big-time moment while playing on the same court that his late grandfather, Ron Dunlap, did in his playing days at the University of Illinois. 

“It’s a great feeling,” Heard said. “He was definitely with me tonight and with our team and my teammates helped me do this.”

The Ironmen fought, battled and clawed to the bitter end and a small glimmer of hope appeared with 1:10 left in the game after a Noah Cleveland three cut the Homewood-Flossmoor lead to 55-48.

However, the deficit, was too much to overcome after the Vikings neutralized Normal Community’s difference-maker, 6-foot-10 senior center Jaheem Webber, with two early fouls. Webber, whose next game will come with Wright State University, was held to two points and six rebounds. 

“I think we were down seven or eight when we had the ball and I thought if we get one more bucket in there and get to the five or six, that we had a real shot and we just couldn't quite convert,” Witzig said. “We were chasing all night.” 

Ironmen stay alive after Vikings’ half-opening blows 

Homewood-Flossmoor made a statement to start the game with a Jayden Tyler 3-pointer just three seconds into the contest. The Vikings made three more of them later in the frame, starting the game a perfect 4-4 behind the arc. Normal Community hung right with them in the fast-paced first quarter with early 3-pointers from seniors Niko Newsome and Braylon Roman. 

Noah Cleveland gave the Ironmen an 8-7 lead after a bucket with 5:29 left in the first. It didn’t seem at the moment that it would be Normal Community’s last lead of the game, but it was. 

Even though the Vikings cooled off in the second quarter, a 3-for-12 shooting mark from the Ironmen prevented them from taking advantage. 

Braylon Roman
Normal Community's Braylon Roman drives in for a shot on Homewood-Flossmoor's Mac Hageman. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

 “​​If you told us before the game we took 24 threes, that’s not good for us because our strength is inside but they did a great job of forcing us out and they were hot and so I give them all the credit tonight,” Witzig said.

Homewood-Flossmoor dealt the Ironmen an 8-0 run to start the third quarter, giving Central Illinois’ state title representative its biggest deficit of the game at 39-23 with 4:52 left in the third. Six of those eight points came from Tyler, who finished with 15 points and an impressive seven rebounds, given that the 5-foot-9 guard was at a significant size disadvantage all night.

“Jayden looked me in the eyes like right before the tip and I knew he was gonna have a good game,” Dismukes said. “He looked me in his eyes and he's like, ‘I'm ready’. So I took it to him, pull-up jumper [on the] first play of the game, I knew he was gonna have a great game.”

“We wanted to keep them outside and take highly contested jumpers and they got loose for some open threes and that kind of got them going,” Witzig said. “They were 8 for 14 from three and our last couple opponents shot really poorly from three, we were forcing teams out into contested jumpers.”

However, the Ironmen showed their resolve in response to that run. After three misses and two turnovers to start the third, Witzig’s group revved into gear by going to their spark plug Roman for a jumper, followed by a dunk and layup from Cleveland, who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“We kind of came together at the half and talked stuff through and we went on a little run in the second half so I think just kind of like staying together and having some motivation in the locker rooms is what kind of helped change it for us,” Webber said.

Conner Smith
Normal Community's Conner Smith shoots a 3-pointer in Saturday's 4A state title game. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

Heard and Roman, the best shooters on their respective teams, went at it by alternating buckets before Normal Community’s sixth man, junior guard Conner Smith, shook off a slow start with a contested layup and 3-pointer that sent a shock of life into the Ironmen faithful at the end of the quarter. 

The buckets got them back to a 47-39 deficit after three quarters.

“We needed him tonight to come out and get some more shots and keep us in the game,” Witzig said of Smith, who finished with eight tallies off the bench.

Heart over height

Roman continued his hot shooting from Friday’s semifinal – where he scored 19 – into Saturday with 14 of his team-high 18 points in the fourth quarter. But all the while, Homewood-Flossmoor’s well-executed defense of Webber kept the big man off the scoring column until a turnaround layup with 6:08 left in the fourth.

The Vikings didn’t boast the towering height to match Webber, but 6-foot-8 center Donald “Mac” Hagemaster played his defense-first role to near perfection in helping slow down the Ironmen center.

Homewood-Flossmoor battled to an even 34-34 mark with Normal Community in rebounding and the Ironmen turned multiple offensive rebounds into second-chance points, but the Vikings’ heart matched their opposition’s height.

 “I played Jaheem a lot in the past but I think today, he wanted it a lot [and] I gotta give props to him,” Hagemaster said. “Noah Cleveland too, they were battling a lot and so it felt good to battle and that's what I like to do.”

“It has nothing to do with size; it has everything to do with heart,” Dismukes added. “You look at the definition of heart, look at these five and look at the other ten in the locker room. That's heart.”

Braylon Roman
Normal Community's Braylon Roman slams in a dunk in Saturday's 4A state title game. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

Webber’s first bucket helped the Ironmen take a step forward, but not before a pair of free throws plus a tough jumper from Heard set them two steps back. Roman threw down a two-handed flush on a fast break to make it 51-43 with 5:20 to go but Normal Community went the next four minutes without a field goal while the Vikings were content to have long possessions on the other end.

Following Cleveland’s late three to keep the Ironmen alive, a somewhat-broken inbounds play resulted in Hagemaster driving into the hoop before being fouled. The Vikings forward shot just 33 percent from the line all season but, as fate would have it, swished both free throws to seal the win.

“These kids have now marked their names in history forever and I'm proud of them for that,” Dismukes said. “I woke up this morning with a game plan on my mind, I told the guys our game plan and they executed it beautifully.”

Ironmen's 2023-24 group anything but Normal

The loss certainly stung for the Ironmen and their seniors.

The type of tears that flowed from Roman’s eyes after receiving his second place medal were those that only come a few times in one’s life. His teammates stared blankly at the Vikings’ celebration and the State Farm Center floor.

But the Ironmen have nothing to be ashamed of. 

Normal Community came in with high expectations and was the first team to receive the No. 1 ranking in the Class 4A AP statewide poll this season. 

After a State Farm Holiday Classic title and wins over Chicago Kenwood and Richwoods, the Big 12 champions suffered four setbacks to four state-ranked powers over the next three weeks. A 47-38 loss to Metamora on Feb. 3 lit a fire under the Ironmen to play their best possible basketball down the stretch, which they did. 

“Five Saturdays ago, we lost to Metamora and they really took it to us and kind of embarrassed us and we learned from that,” Witzig said. “From that point on, we really came together better as a team and did a great job.”

Jaheem Webber
Normal Community's Jaheem Webber shoots a layup in Saturday's Class 4A state title game. Brock Angle/Clutch Sports Media

The Ironmen won nine in a row after that loss, defeating defending Class 4A state champion Moline twice, getting by state-ranked Quincy in a sectional title thriller and throttling state final hopeful Downers Grove North in the super-sectionals. 

As the legend of the Ironmen continued to grow, support of the team increased exponentially. 

Ten, 20 or 30 years down the road, the Ironmen may not remember what happened in Saturday’s state title game, or even the outcome itself. But what they will remember, and will be remembered for, was inspiring their fans and the next generation of Normal Community basketball stars. 

“We drove past a couple elementary schools and a bunch of kids were out for us and you hear about the kids trying to come to the game and stuff and it's just really fun to have the community back you up like that,” Webber said. “That was awesome.”

Class 4A is traditionally dominated in numbers, and championships, by schools from the Chicago area. Schools from central and downstate Illinois often find themselves boxed out. 

However, in reaching the biggest stage that Illinois high school basketball has to offer, the Ironmen proved that they deserve a seat at the table for years to come.

“It was just a great run for Normal Community and the feeder schools and the kids around there,” Witzig said. “I told the guys ‘We proved that Normal Community kids can play for state championships.’”

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