Bureau County Sports Hall of Fame: Bureau Valley basketball took state by Storm

Storm claim unprecendented string of three straight third-place state finishes

Bureau Valley basketball 2002.

A Storm was brewing in the Bureau County boys basketball ranks in the late 1990s.

Bureau Valley High School won regional championships in its first four years beginning with the 1995-96 school year through 1998-99 with a combined record of 62-46.

Brad Bickett’s high-disciplined and demanding coaching style brought the best out of his Storm squads.

In 1999-2000, the Storm took the next step, winning their first sectional championship.

And then they took the next step and another, reaching the IHSA State Basketball Tournament for the first time in school history, placing third in Class A.

For an encore, the Storm repeated their third-place finishes in 2000-01 and 2001-02, becoming the first school to accomplish that feat. It has not been duplicated since.

The three Storm squads combined for an overall record of 80-12, an incredible .870 winning percentage.

Bureau Valley basketball 2001.

Reuben Slock, who played on the first two state squads, earning All-State honors, and 2000 graduate Justin Yepsen have many great memories of games won, but what always sticks out most is how the Storm brought the community and area together.

“Oh man, looking back and knowing now how much hard work was put in to do what we were able to accomplish is special along with some luck in there,” Slock said.

“We got so far for years getting to sectional and when we finally got over the hump to get to supersectional, the crowd, the fans and communities is what I always think of,” said Yepsen, who now serves as president of the Bureau Valley School Board. “Wins were great, but I remember how the communities and kids all came together. I’ll never forget we won the supersectional and everybody is chanting, ‘No school Friday.’ And then getting to go to Peoria and leave the school and people are lined up from Manlius clear to Bradford as you go by. Those are things you never forget.”

Mike Behrens, who played on the first two state teams, said what made their teams so special was the camaraderie they developed during practices and camps.

“A lot of us had been playing together for years and the discipline instilled in us by Coach Bickett during practice is something I look back on with great respect as it was ultimately what propelled us to the success we achieve,” said Behrens, who is a salesman by day and a professional wrestler at night.

“It’s crazy how strong a bond can be amongst a group of young men when they are pushed every day in practice like we were. Ask any one of the three teams… the mile run and suicides every practice will bring back plenty of memories. Partner that with coach Bickett’s focus on fundamentals and you have the foundation needed for success.”

1999-00 Storm (26-6)

Bureau Valley won its fifth straight regional championship, soundly defeating Earlville 101-63 and Mendota 80-43 at Somonauk.

Getting over the sectional hurdle would not come easy.

The Storm needed a Slock tip-in to trip St. Bede 51-49 in the sectional semifinals at Mendota and survived a 60-59 overtime thriller against Winnebago.

“That championship game, (Mike) Behrens tried to dunk one and that thing went off the rim and went to half court. I know how Bickett’s love for missed dunks were, especially in close games. I was super appreciative for him not jumping on Behrens because we needed Mike and he made two big free throws toward the end that really helped us win that thing,” said Yepsen, who led the Storm in four straight postseason games leading up to state with a combined 78 points.

BV had an easier time at the DeKalb Supersectional, defeating Aurora Central Catholic 58-39 at old Chick Evans Fieldhouse.

At state, the unranked Storm defeated Prairie Central 69-65 before falling to Teutopolis 60-42 in the semifinals. As a player at Ohio, Bickett played in the state championship against the Wooden Shoes and coach Ken Crawford.

“You go down there, and I still say this is the biggest thing, you win or you go home,” Yepsen said.

The Storm rallied to claim their first third-place prize by defeating Riverton 65-62 to finish 26-6.

“I guess early on what motivated me most was not being the first team to not win a regional championship. Then when we went on that run my junior year, we kept winning and getting more hungry,” Slock said.

Yepsen said the Storm had a team in which on any given night anyone could be the hero.

“One thing about that team, it didn’t matter who it was we always had people step up,” he said. “We always had a core group of us that contributed every game, but you always had 2-3 people that that could be their game where they’re your leader.

“There’s probably been a lot more talented teams from Bureau County after us, but it’s the way we worked from 1 through 8, or 1 through 7. It didn’t really matter what the number was, who was on the bench, who was starting or who was on the court. We were successful and we fed off one another.

“It didn’t matter who the hero was, we just wanted to win and keep moving on.”

Bureau Valley coach Brad Bickett works the Storm bench during a timeout in the 2000-01 IHSA Class A State Basketball Tournament.

2000-01 Storm (33-2)

After getting a taste of state, the No. 2-ranked Storm wanted more and getting back there wasn’t just enough. They aimed for the state championship.

The Storm carried a 31-1 record into the postseason, falling only to Fulton 68-43, after defeating the Steamers 69-60 earlier in Three Rivers Conference play.

They outscored their opponents 69.6 to 47.5 along the way.

The first leg of the postseason came at the LaMoille Regional where the Storm handled Mendota 58-39 and Somomauk 57-29. Storm point guard John Elliott said following the championship, “We’ve won six regionals in a row, but you don’t know when it’s going to end, so you try to enjoy each one and don’t take them for granted.”

John Elliott

At the Somonauk Sectional, the Storm breezed to a 78-40 win over Hinckley-Big Rock before defeating Stillman Valley 59-48 for the championship.

At DeKalb, the Storm won its second straight supersectional crown, defeating No. 12 Huntley 60-43. Bickett said following the game, “This sometimes never happens to the state tournament as a coach. To have a group of kids to get there back to back, it’s so gratifying and it feels great.”

Back at state, the Storm shot down the Macomb Bombers 65-51, but had a disappointing 66-59 semifinal loss to No. 16-ranked Pana.

Bureau Valley's Phil Endress makes his moves against Westmont in the 2000-01 IHSA Class A third-place game against Westmont.

The Storm came back to capture the third-place game again, defeating No. 3 Westmont 70-61, finishing 33-2, but felt like they should have done more.

“We definitely were disappointed and almost felt like we let coach Bickett down. We had that Pana game in the bag, then couldn’t get anything to go right,” said Slock, who was named to the all-tournament team. “I feel like my junior year I wasn’t as disappointed due to not being a favorite. But now as an old man I feel we were very lucky to even have made it to state once let alone twice.”

Slock, Phil Endress, John Elliott and Behrens were all among the top 10 scorers in the state tournament, including the supersectional.

The 2000-01 Bureau Valley Storm basketball team celebrates the second of three straight third-place finishes from the IHSA State Basketball Tournament.

2001-02 Storm (31-4)

There was a a changing of the guard and forwards as a new cast of Storm talent led the charge following the graduation of Slock, Elliott and Behrens.

It was time for seniors Adam Gutshall, Reid Oberle, Greg Cooley and Nathan Koning to shine, along with classmate Phil Endress, who played key roles on the first two state squads.

The No. 6-ranked Storm, riding a 15-game win streak, went right to work at the Mendota Regional, defeating Ohio 66-42 and Mendota 81-55.

From there, the road back to Peoria was not an easy one for the Storm.

At home at the Storm Cellar, the Storm outlasted Byron 52-50 in overtime in the sectional semifinals and needed a fierce second-half rally to storm past rival Princeton 52-41 in the championship game. Endress, who had just four points leading up to the fourth quarter, hit three 3-pointers and three throws to fuel a 26-9 Storm surge.

Yorkville proved to be a stiff challenge at the DeKalb Supersectional with the Storm hanging on in a 48-47 thriller.

Bureau Valley captains Phil Endress (left) and Adam Gutshall and coach Brad Bickett proudly carry in the third-place trophy from the 2001-02 IHSA State Basketball Tournament.

In Peoria, the Storm opened with a 60-53 quarterfinal win over Chicago Providence-St. Mel. An all too familiar outcome saw the Storm fall in the state semifinals once again, 65-36 to eventual state champion Pleasant Plains.

The Storm earned its third-place three-peat with a 64-55 win over Tolono Unity to cap a 31-4 campaign.

Endress was named to the all-tournament team and was the third-leading scorer (64 points) in the tournament. Gutshall (53) was the fifth-leading scorer.

Bickett led the Storm to three more regional championships before resigning after the 2010 season, posting a 15-year mark of 287-150 (.657). He returned to the bench at Rock Falls from 2012-20, winning 15 regionals over a 28-year career with a 491-303 record.

Note: The Bureau County Sports Hall of Fame was formed in 1995 as part of the BCR’s Tribute to Sports program. While the Tribute to Sports was discontinued in 2005, the Hall of Fame was reinstituted in print in 2016.

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