Surging Falcons prepared to face No. 1-ranked Cardinal Ritter in final four

Bill Althaus
The Examiner
Van Horn senior guard Jaden Monday (11) glides in for a layup in a Class 5 state quarterfinal against Mexico Friday. Monday fired in a season-best 41 points to lead the Falcons to a 91-83 overtime win and a berth in the state final four.

When Max Sollars took over the Van Horn High School boys basketball program four years ago, there were more players on his team’s bench than fans in the stands.

The unheralded Falcons played in a lifeless gym that had definitely seen better days, and a basketball culture was nowhere to be found.

More:'The only place I wanted to play': Monday, Sollars help grow Van Horn basketball program

Fast forward to 2021. The Falcons play in one of the premier, state-of-the-art auditoriums in the state and Sollars has created not only a culture, but a basketball way of life, with his final four-bound band of brothers who live, eat, drink and sleep basketball – just like their coach.

“Five years ago, when I was at Nowlin, I saw the talent and knew that there were some kids who were passionate about basketball at Van Horn,” said Sollars, whose 19-5 Falcons take on 18-5 Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis, the No. 1-ranked Class 5 team in the state.

Photo gallery:Class 5 state quarterfinal basketball: Van Horn upsets Mexico

The Falcons have already knocked off No. 2-ranked Mexico, in a 91-83 overtime classic quarterfinal game, and respect but do not fear their opponent in Thursday’s 3 p.m. matchup at JQH Arena on the Missouri State University campus in Springfield. The Falcons have won seven of their last eight, and the only loss in that span was to Class 6 No. 3-ranked Staley.

“Man, the last team from Van Horn to go to state was in 1983,” said Sollars, referring to a Falcons team that finished second in the state to St. Louis Vashon. “And people still talk about that team. I knew four years ago these guys were going to have some success because they worked so hard. And, let’s face it, they’re talented.”

And, if you ask Sollars’ players, they have a pretty decent coach.

More:Junior basketball team captain Jeremy Paige helps lead Falcons to state final four

“We’d do anything for Coach Sollars,” said team captain Jeremy Paige, a junior point guard who is averaging 22.5 points a game in the postseason. “He loves us, and man, we love him.

“And this season has been like sitting down to watch a Netflix movie, and you see this team that comes out of nowhere, that believes in each other and in their coach and you watch it, but you don’t believe it, because it’s hard to believe.

“That’s us. No one would believe what we’ve done this season except the guys in our locker room and our coaches. When someone believes in you, you never want to disappoint them. And that’s how it is with us.”

Van Horn junior guard Jeremy Paige (4) is greeted by teammates Sean Mitchell, left, and Cooper Sumpter (1) after Mexico calls a timeout in Friday's Class 5 state quarterfinal. Paige scored 14 of his 29 points in the first quarter and the Falcons went on to a 91-83 victory in overtime to advance to the state final four.

Senior guard Jaden Monday – who impressed Sollars as an eighth grader at Nowlin and is the third leading scorer in the metro area at 22.6 points per game – agrees with his backcourt mate.

“We were all so excited about coming to Van Horn,” said Monday, who exploded for 41 points in the overtime win against Mexico. “They didn’t have much success, but being around Coach I knew that he was going to get something going at Van Horn.

“Now, we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re like a brotherhood – and when you’re playing for your brothers, you play so much harder.”

Sollars said he sees Cardinal Ritter as a “more skilled Ruskin team,” referring to an Eagles team his Falcons beat in the sectional playoffs.

“They have size - 6-foot-8, 6-10 – and a couple of good guards (6-foot-4 junior shooting guard Braxton Stacker is ranked second best recruit in the state in his class by 247sports.com). But man, all I’ve been doing is watching video, the dudes on the team have been watching video, and I know they’re watching video of us, so we’re ready to hit the bus and head to Springfield.”