By Jon Gremmels Herald Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON — R.J. Coffey made the short trip across the Mississippi River to return to his basketball roots this season. It certainly was a happy homecoming.
The former Fulton High School basketball player took over as boys basketball coach at his alma mater. Not only did the Steamers enjoy their first winning season since 2005-06, they won more than 20 games in a breakout season.
"When I came in in the summer, I said, 'Here's the deal. I don't care what happened in the past; you guys don't need to worry about the past. Here's what we're going to do,' " said Coffey, who has been selected as the Clinton Herald Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. "I pushed them really hard in the summer and early in the season, and they never backed down. They bought in."
Utilizing several holdovers and a few juniors who came in and provided some scoring punch, the Steamers bounced back from back-to-back 20-loss seasons and finished 21-9, falling to Three Rivers Conference North Division champion Sterling Newman in the regional title game. They tied for third place in the Three Rivers Conference North Division with a 9-5 record.
"I can't give them enough credit," Coffey said.
With a senior group that included All-Area First-Team pick Matt Dail, Jake Willging, Paul Velasco and Devin Kuehl, juniors such as Zach Barber — a Second-Team All-Area player — Kyle Huebner, Seth Sanderson and Jason Osborn joined in to create a winning formula.
"We tried to play a really fast pace," Coffey said. "Seth Sanderson did an excellent job at pushing the pace. We had a lot of baskets in transition because we kind of outran teams. We created problems with our pressure. We were basically four guards and Willging as an undersized post.
"It was phenomenal how easy they bought in to what I wanted."
Success came immediately, as the Steamers ripped off five wins to start the season.
Coffey said that once they started winning, they gained confidence.
"He brought a lot of energy," said Cordell Juhola, whose Prophetstown team won 2 of 3 against Fulton and tied the Steamers and Morrison for third place in the conference race. "He's a graduate of Fulton and had a lot of pride to rebuild Steamer pride.
"The kids bought into his system, and the underclass coaches he had have done a good job. RJ was utilizing their strength. That's why they won 20 after losing 20."
Coffey's success came as no surprise to Clinton coach Nick Lawrence. Coffey served as Lawrence's assistant before taking the Fulton job.
"We've known each other for a long time," Lawrence said. "I asked him if he wanted to stay when I became head coach, and he obliged to stay."
Coffey still teaches at Clinton, and has maintained a good relationship with the River King players.
"He'll stop by our practices every once in awhile, and to check up on us," Lawrence said.
That relationship, runs both ways, however.
During the Steamers' run in the IHSA Tournament, many of the River King players came to the games and sat behind Fulton's bench.
"He's still one of us," Lawrence said. "Hats off to RJ at what he has accomplished this year at Fulton."