The Jackson boys basketball program is partying like its the 1930s as the Indians are hoping to make their second-straight appearance to the state final four after taking fourth place in Class 6 last winter.
It was 1937 the last time Jackson made the final four until last season, which was the same decade the program won its lone state championship in school history back in 1934.
The Indians enter this season under second-year head coach Kory Thoma, who lead Jackson to win its third-straight district championship and record the most wins since 2018-19, with plenty of optimism.
When Coach Thoma took over as head coach, he looked at one of the school’s program’s like Jackson football, which won state in 2020, that help set the bar for his expectations.
“[Last season] was a huge experience for the underclassmen — they now know how hard you have to practice and how hard you have to commit to raise that bar now,” Thoma said. “I’ve got six seniors this year — pretty good number of seniors — and five or six juniors.
“We’re going to be old, so that experience of getting to the final four and how we competed late in the season and win close games, those are all stepping stones to raise that bar. There were three games in the postseason where we won by a combined five to six points. We took some close losses early in the season, but we educated ourselves and learned, ‘What did we do wrong in those losses?’ Our team grew and that’s what you want.”
After opening the district tournament with a 77-39 blowout of Oakville in the Class 6 District 1 Tournament, the Indians only won their next three games by a combined seven points. Jackson advanced to the district title game with a 38-37 win over Lindbergh and beat Kirkwood 39-37 for the championship. The Indians then, of course, beat Eureka by four at 40-36 to advance to the final four.
At state, Jackson ended up falling to the eventual Class 6 State Champions Staley by 26 points at 68-42. The Falcons went on to beat Kickapoo by double digits as well 49-32, while the Indians fell to Troy Buchanan by just eight points in the third-place game.
In both the SEMO Conference and Christmas tournament championship games before the second half of the season, Jackson lost to foe Cape Central by scores of 55-33 and 60-54, respectively.
The Indians also fell to the Tigers in the regular season on their home court 53-47 and fell to Westminster Christian 51-36 in the Lindbergh Flyer Tournament title game.
Along with learning from their mistakes in those losses, Coach Thoma and his team also talked about not only making the state final four but winning a state championship as well.
“If you talk about it, the kids believe it, and they’ll do what it takes,” Coach Thoma said. “The hardest thing is we were trying to create this culture, and this is the culture that was obviously successful last year. We get the new crops coming in, and they don’t know the culture.
“I had amazing leadership on the team last year from my seniors — I lost four great seniors. There’s multiple ways you can lead — you can lead by example, vocally, in the weight room or in practice. I had a combination of all those.
“My seniors to be are the nicest, quietest kids in the world. However, we’ve been working on their leadership skills — they play hard, but playing hard is not the only attribute to leadership. If they can lead the underclassmen, and we can continue to build this culture, then you’re guiding the program to where we want it to be.”
That’s the same philosophy Coach Thoma is having for this season as he returns two starters and plenty of key role players from last winter. Arguably the most important piece will be Jackson 6-foot-3 senior guard Blayne Harris, who was the only player named to the Class 6 All-State Team for this season.
Harris earned this recognition after leading all scorers for the Indians with 14.1 points per game, as he also knocked down a team-high 64 3-pointers with a 43.3 shooting percentage (37% from 3-point range). Additionally, Blayne, who fields a few offers to play collegiately, averaged nearly two assists per contest at 1.9 and also registered 1.1 steals each contest.
Jackson will be without Harris for the first six to eight weeks as he suffered a fractured elbow in Jackson football’s state quarterfinal loss to Christian Brothers College this past Friday night. Blayne was the Indians second-leading receiver and helped them record a 10-2 overall record.
“Blayne played all summer and is a coach on the floor,” Coach Thoma said. “When I played basketball, I felt like I was the coach on the floor. He knows what’s going on in every aspect of the game, and you don’t lose that over night. You might lose your shooting touch for a couple games, but you don’t lose the ability to know how the game is played and what to expect. He gets that and it’s credited to his longevity of playing the sport. It’s nice having that type of player back — it makes my job a little easier.”
The second and final returning starter for the Indians will be Coach Thoma’s nephew 6-4 senior guard Judd Thoma, who was a SEMO All-Conference selection with Harris. Alongside Blayne, Thoma averaged 10 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per games.
Thoma, who played with the Southwestern Illinois Jets during the AAU circuit this offseason, is another college-caliber player Jackson has as its disposal.
“Judd has gotten a lot stronger this year, and we’re looking for him to do really nice things for me more this year,” Coach Thoma said. “His leadership skills have really come along way, so I’ve been very impressed with his offseason. With his physique and size, he’s a hard guard for opponents.
“Judd’s motor this year has been really good in the offseason — the sky’s the limit for him. That’s another nice kid to have on your team to be like, ‘Hey, throw him the ball, and he’ll get you a bucket.’ It should be a fun year.”
The starters the Indians lost to graduation from last year’s final-four team include all-conference and all-district selection post Clayton Ernst, as well as a duo of guards in Kaed Windborne and Grant Borgfield. Windborne now plays collegiately for D-III Webster in St. Louis.
Filling in for a player like Ernst, who stood at 6-8 and averaged 11.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, will be 6-5 senior forward Gavin Holdman. He was crucial for Jackson coming off the bench all of last season, averaging 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds each contest. Holdman was also the Indians second-leader in blocks behind Ernst with 11 to Clayton’s 41.
“Gavin played a lot behind Clayton last year, and he’s going to be our big guy inside this year,” Coach Thoma said. “He’s so much more developed than he was last year — he had spurts where he played well. I think you’ll see him being a lot more consistent, and you’ll be surprised from how much he’s improved.
“One of the biggest things with Holdman is keeping his motor up. With his personality and style, his motor is not there all the time. If it is, you’re going to see exceptional things. We might have a little roller coaster this year as far as winning and losing games — inconsistency might be the case, which is fine. He’s the most athletic person on this team, and you’ll see him do some exciting things this year.”
Also stepping into the starting lineup will be the likes of 5-11 senior guard Braedon Thoma as well as 6-6 junior guard Kole Deck. Braeden Thoma played plenty of minutes last winter while Deck only saw action in 13 games. Thoma, who is also Coach Thoma’s son, finished with an average of 1.6 assists per game and also came up with 19 steals while rotating in.
“Braeden will be leading our point guard position this year — him and Kolton [Thoma] will probably be the tandem there,” Coach Thoma said. “He’s had a good offseason, and our style of play is probably going to be a little bit different this year. We don’t have a traditional big, so we’re probably going to try to get up and down the court a bit quicker. [Braeden] is our motor, so I’m looking for him to be our point guard. He doesn’t score a lot — he doesn’t shoot a lot — but he’s got a motor that we need.”
Even though Deck didn’t play in a majority of games last winter, he contributed in vital moments for Jackson as he stepped up big in the Indians quarterfinal game to help them reach state.
With the Indians returning leading scorer Harris having yet to practice this season due to playing football, this has allowed Kole to showcase his potential as one of Jackson’s top scorers for this season and the next.
“Kole Deck might be the best scorer in the program — he’s very impressive,” Coach Thoma said. “You’re going to be impressed with Kole Deck. The best thing that’s happened with Kole is Blayne not being here [yet]. He’s running with the first team, and in our first scrimmage he played really well. You’re probably going to go, ‘Who is that kid?’
Coach Thoma said he’s coached Deck for about a decade now and said that he simply has a knack for scoring. Thoma said Kole’s ability as a scorer is very similar to Harris as they’re both players who know how to get to the rim and take their shots when they’re open.
“Kole is a tremendous shooter — he’s long and lengthy,” Coach Thoma added. “We’ve put some weight on him, and he needs to continue to put weight on. His physicality is probably his biggest weakness, but he makes up for it in a lot of places. He’s going to make a big jump, and we’re going to have a solid starting five this year.”
Coming off the bench this season will be players like seniors 6-3 guard Keegan Stutzman, 5-10 guard Kaden Pruitt and juniors 6-0 guard Kolton Thoma, 6-2 forward Braden Thompson and 6-4 post Lee Ivy. Jackson was also gifted with a transfer player from Warrenton in 5-10 junior guard Taeheb Perkins.
“Early on, I want them to accept the style that I’m trying to get this year of contain and maintain it,” Coach Thoma said. “I think we will improve as the season goes on with that style. It comes down to we don’t have that big [in Ernst], we have to rebound and contend. The players know my expectations on the end of that court.
“We will we be as good of a rebounding team as we were last year? That’ll be hard, so that’s why we’re going to get up and down the court a little more. I don’t think effort is going to be an issue. They will play hard, and if they come together and form that bond like we did last year, we could be tough down the stretch.”