QUINCY — With fans in blue already in early stages of celebration Friday night, Kevin Caldwell Jr. walked off the court at Blue Devil Gym to some appreciative applause from the few dozen fans in red.
A fifth foul with 4:12 remaining in the fourth quarter ended Caldwell’s career with Alton Redbirds boys basketball. Down by 19 points, Caldwell had surrendered to the outcome that would end with Quincy’s 57-36 victory over Alton in the championship game of the Quincy Class 4A Regional.
Caldwell was greeted at the bench by coach Eric Smith, who consoled the three-year starter with a long embrace. Another extended hug was reserved for Darrell Smith, the other senior starter in a Redbirds season that closed with a 16-12 record.
“We’ve got some pretty special kids in there,” Eric Smith said outside a locker room that included the seniors he calls Poppy (Caldwell) and Tony (Smith). “Poppy’s had an incredible career for us. Tony is probably one of those kids I’m most proud of.”
Caldwell has been a standout since breaking into the starting lineup as a sophomore. “He’s so tough and such a great team player,” Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said of Caldwell.
For Darrell Smith, the early stages with Redbirds basketball were less about being a standout as a player than it was a standoff with the coach.
“A couple years ago, we butted heads quite a bit,” Eric Smith said. “He’s grown up and he’s become a leader. A lot of that shows. If our kids want to see how to handle themselves, you can just take a snapshot of his career. His freshman-sophomore years, he struggled with some stuff. Came back his senior year when he figured it out and he’s an all-state running back and he’s a quality basketball player.”
It was a season the featured a brilliant start for the Redbirds with nine victories in the first 10 games. But the final day at the Centralia Holiday Tournament brought back-to-back defeats to Belleville West and Chicago Marist for a fourth-place tourney finish.
That would trigger a run of six losses in seven games in a peaks and valleys final two months. “When we played a certain way,” Eric Smith said, “we played well.”
The winning season was the fifth in a row for Alton, including 16 victories in each of the last three years. The Redbirds also extended a string of upper-division finishes in the Southwestern Conference. Alton placed third behind SWC champion West (14-0) and runner-up Edwardsville (10-4) with a 9-5 league record.
The Redbirds have been in the top four in the SWC for five years in a row, including two runner-up finishes, two third place and one fourth.
West will be a clear choice to defend its conference throne next season, with the Redbirds seemingly positioned as best of the rest with five of their top seven players returning. Three starters are back in juniors Malik Smith, Donovan Clay and Josh Rivers,
“We’re losing Kevin and Darrell, my brother,” said Malik Smith, who projects as one of the SWC’s top talents coming back. “They were two big factors for our season. We played well, things just didn’t go our way in the end. The guys back, we have the chemistry. We just have to come together and play hard. I think we can go way farther next year than we did this year.”
Eric Smith was still processing the post-mortem for an Alton season ended by a Blue Devils squad that exposed the Redbirds’ need to get stronger in the offseason.
“Our underclass has had some success,” the Alton coach said. “It’s consistency with them and being physical, so if we get some kids to make a commitment to be in the weight room, we should be all right.”