Effingham Daily News
Garrett Ziegler's "ultimate goal" this year for his Altamont Indians was to deliver them their first basketball sectional win ever — he said as much after scoring his 1,000th point in February.
Underneath that came a deeper, more basic wish that drove him to work harder than he ever had in three seasons of basketball with the Indians — for both his town and himself.
"I think the reason people do stuff is there's an absolute source to them, there's an underlying motive to them," Ziegler said. "To me, the worst thing I could ever do is be forgotten, I have to be remembered. To do that, especially at Altamont, where the average current is just to be mediocre.
"I wanted to do something to make me and my team remembered. I felt like an extra obligation to not waste this senior year. I don't want to be a stat."
And while he didn't get where he wanted, losing a heartbreaker to St. Anthony in the Nokomis Regional final, he's accumulated a number of honors thanks to his stats: All-National Trail Conference tournament team, All-NTC team, NTC MVP, IBCA Class 1A/2A third-team all-state, AP Class 1A all-state honorable mention.
Averaging 16.2 points, 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals a game, Ziegler can also add the Effingham Daily News' All-Area Player of the Year title to the list of his accomplishments.
The numbers were a step back scoring-wise, but he nearly tripled his assists. The overall team defense improved, turning them from a solid NTC team to a contender at the state level, winning the NTC tournament and tying for the regular-season crown with a 24-4 record. Ziegler credited the defensive focus on coach John Niebrugge's arrival his junior year, and he put winning over his "chief endeavor" of scoring points and got over his own hangups about trusting his teammates to make plays.
It worked from the get-go, rattling off wins early and often, with Altamont's first loss coming during the Vandalia Holiday Tournament to NTC rival St. Anthony, while the Indians finished third at the tournament.
While he did defer the scoring load on some nights, he raised his game to help the Indians down St. Anthony for the NTC tournament title. Altamont bested them again about three weeks later to help clinch a share of the NTC regular season crown with the Bulldogs and Dieterich, as Ziegler scored 32 in a 70-63 win. It didn't surprise fellow senior Cole Borders.
"Garrett is just as competitive as anyone I've ever met in my life," Borders said. "Especially for the St. Anthony games, and I know he loves playing against them, it brings out the best in him."
He also played well in a pair of classics with Dieterich, splitting the series with a Movin' Maroons team that went to Super-Sectionals, losing in the regular season but winning in overtime at the NTC tourney semifinals.
It was fitting the Indians and Bulldogs would run back into each other at the Nokomis Regional, with Altamont holding a 2-1 season series lead and almost pushing it to 3-1.
Ziegler hit a go-ahead layup with six seconds left to go up 39-38, only to see his counterpart Neil Williams drive the length of the court and do the same to end Altamont's season and Ziegler's hopes of putting his school on the map.
"St. Anthony's a big personal problem for me," he said. "It felt gratifying for me to drop 32 on them, it was one of my best moments in high school and I thought I got them again. We didn't play that well. I thought, 'Holy crap, we're going to sneak by, we're going to steal this one.' Then (Williams) does the exact same thing and it's deflating."
Still, his teammates thought the changes in the coaching brought on by Niebrugge helped carry Altamont to one of its finest seasons in 100 years, winning its first NTC tournament title in 24 years. It also helped Ziegler to the finest season of his career.
Borders, a fellow senior and member of the baseball team with Ziegler, saw the evolution of the team game and the play of Ziegler from their freshmen seasons.
"I knew ever since freshman year he was going to be a great player, it was just a matter of him evolving his game," Borders said. "Once Mr. Niebrugge got here, he changed everything and his game evolved."
Borders emerged this season as a floor-spacer and a reliable three-point shooter, while Derek Jahraus stepped into a bigger role in the rotation working both inside and out.
That work was key, as Jahraus said anyone like himself, Borders, Jake Seidel or Justin McGinnis could also score double digits any night.
Jahraus thought the leadership of the senior class may have brought about a change to the Altamont program, along with Niebrugge at the helm.
"Everyone had a huge role in it, but Garrett was a big leader this year," Jahraus said. "I think we're going to be remembered as the first team of many teams to come to set some records, win some championships and hopefully, win a game at sectionals."
With Niebrugge at the helm, Ziegler said the amount of time spent practicing defense and working on schemes went up dramatically, estimating as much as 70 percent of practices were spent working on the defense.
Niebrugge, a Teutopolis alum and former assistant coach for the Wooden Shoes, implemented that style of play, and more importantly, that style of practice.
"It sounds like that T-Town mantra. If you have a defensive mindset, you get a lot of points off defense and then you can make a mark," Ziegler said. "Not taking off drills sounds common, but if you go to many area basketball practices, they're not very intense. We lacked that the first three years."
The marriage between player, scheme and coach worked wonders, as Ziegler's three steals a game paid off with a number of fast breaks, leading to breakout baskets for the point guard and a more vaunted defense that could step up and play in the half-court as well.
As for Ziegler's desire to be remembered, Niebrugge thinks it's a no-brainer, drawing from his experience growing up and emulating the players from the 1990s at Teutopolis.
"This team is going to be remembered for a long time at Altamont," Niebrugge said. "We didn't accomplish the things we wanted to. Garrett, being the leader of the team, will be the frontrunner that changes Altamont for the better.
"There are boys in the fourth and fifth grade who want to be Garrett Ziegler, like when I was growing up in T-Town and I wanted to be Eric Swingler. Garrett is now that kid here."
And after it all, they fell just short. Ziegler said he's still getting over the loss to St. Anthony.
"That's what made the regional loss so tough, even more so than my junior year," he said. "I don't feel any regret, because I did give it everything I had and we still lost."
While he debated playing baseball at Washington University in St. Louis, the city will be the same with a different destination. Ziegler will attend St. Louis University and will study business administration, ending his athletic career.
Ziegler still has a chance to reach the sectional round in baseball and earn a win, something the softball team accomplished last year while making it to Super-Sectionals with a good chance to head back this year. The Indians' baseball team made the regional final last year before losing 4-3 to South Central, who advanced to the sectional final themselves.
But even if he doesn't, Ziegler has started to realize that their accomplishments were enough for him to be remembered.
"I want to be remembered as the leader of a good team, and if we went farther, we would have been a great team," he said. "I can share those memories with others. A whole town unites — unless you're (Mt. Carmel's) Tyra Buss or (Robinson's) Meyers Leonard — around a team and not one person. It only goes so far unless it's a team."