Rodney Williams remembers his first sectional basketball game. Many jump shots ago, Williams was a sophomore player at Horace Mann. It was 1970.

The game was at West Side, and when he ran out, he saw 8,000 fans drawn into the affair. It was the thrill of a lifetime.

“There was no place I wanted to be more,” Williams said. “What a thrill for a young man.”

Williams is now the head coach at Gary 21st Century. His Cougars (8-10) will play Washington Township (5-14) in their first IHSAA state basketball tournament tonight at the Class A Morgan Township Sectional.

The charter school in downtown Gary became eligible to participate this season.

The Cougars’ record may not make anyone say, “Wow,” but 21st Century has played several 3A and 4A schools this season, before finishing their season with an eye-opening 94-73 win over Gavit.

Six players finished in double-digit scoring.

Last year, when the season ended, there was nothing to play for, so the team went to the sectional at Bowman Academy and sat in the stands. They looked at the environment and a longing started to smoke.

“I saw the fans, the competition, and I couldn’t wait for this year,” junior guard Mykel Mayes said. “Going there last year I was anxious for this. Now, we’re here.

“We can’t wait. We want to go there and play our best and see if we can win a championship.”

Mayes leads the team averaging 14.1 points per game. He’s also getting 4.7 assists and 3.8 steals. He’s the engine.

Williams and assistant coach Rick Haskins coached the Gary Running Rebels AAU program for 15 years. Haskins won a sectional at Horace Mann in 1977.

The two have been scouting Kouts and Morgan Twp. all year. On Thursday, the entire team went to see Lake Station and LaCrosse play.

The sectional will be new and exciting, but it will also be different. Most of the teams there play a different style.

“We’re a running team,” Williams said. “That’s what we do, we run.”

Playing a different tempo and style than normal, the Cougars know this game will be different in a lot of ways.

“I’ve got to keep the atmosphere and fans out of my head,” Mayes said. “I’ve got to be a leader and help my team play our game. It’s very exciting. I might cry when I get there.”

This young team has only two seniors. The thrill of the future was in the gym last Thursday night. And finally, after a three-year wait, the future is here.

Jeremiah King came to the Cougars as a sophomore when the now-senior left Lew Wallace. The Hornets went to the Class 3A state championship game as King was at the new school with no postseason.

“I knew I wouldn’t be playing for nothing until my senior year,” King said. “I came here to help build the program. I couldn’t wait to experience this.

“We’re playing for something now.”