One of the Pride teams and their tournament trophy. Photo by Michael Johnson

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The Evanston Township High School Pride Boys Feeder Basketball program is making its way through its first season by excelling both on and off the court according to head coaches.

The program’s founders say collaborative efforts of volunteer coaches, community sponsorship and the support of parents have given local boys the chance to grow athletically as well as socially with a program designed for progress.

Teams are composed of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and some fifth graders who are competitive enough to play up on the sixth grade level.

The non-profit program helps prepare District 65 junior high students for high school level basketball, said Pride president and head coach Mike Johnson. There is also a girl’s feeder program at ETHS that is beginning to grow under the direction of a new coach, said Coach Johnson.

Pride vice president and coach Andre Patrick said the seven teams are a collection of hardworking players that fit the competitive purpose of the program.

“We’re pretty much giving these kids as much knowledge as possible as far as on the basketball game and putting them in the position to play against great competition from all over the state. We want them to do better and get confident and prepare themselves for the high school level,” Coach Patrick said.

The program hosted its first annual tournament on the ETHS campus Jan. 7 and Jan. 8, with estimated attendance of more than 1,000, said Coach Johnson.

The Pride feeder teams played some of the best schools in the state during the tournament, including Waukegan, Lake Forest, Ariel Community Academy, Huntley, Illinois Future, North Chicago, St. Mary’s and Jr. Cogs of Genoa.

An alumnus of ETHS, Coach Johnson said the boys have shown improvement since the beginning of practices last year. “From Septemeber when we had our try outs, to now I can see a lot of changes in the kids in terms of communication with the team.”

Coach Johnson said he has seen the young men mature both on and off the court. He said he hopes the program will make the kids not only better basketball players but also leaders in the community.

With flushed cheeks and their sneakers screeching on the gym floor, the teams practiced on Feb. 1 in Beardsley Gym. Some of the boys’ parents were scattered along the walls of each gym as Coach Johnson and Coach Patrick passed through to visit each team.

A high level of enthusiasm is a constant for every feeder team regardless of player stature and ages. All teams practice on Tuesday and Thursday with games typically played on Sunday.

The concept of the feeder program came about as a way to keep kids in the community schools, said Coach Patrick, who graduated from ETHS in 2004. Coach Patrick played basketball for the high school and said he saw many great athletes come out of Evanston.

“I think we breed a lot of talent here but with that talent we need direction and organization,” said Coach Patrick. “One of the main things I’ve noticed is we’re losing a lot of our kids to other schools.”

Coach Johnson said he even considered taking his son to other schools outside of Evanston for high school but stayed here after speaking with the boys’ head basketball coach, Mike Ellis.

Impressed by Coach Ellis’ strong community base, Coach Johnson and Coach Patrick discussed starting a feeder program similar to those in neighboring communities.

Coach Ellis agreed to a feeder program and ETHS began holding free workout sessions which eventually had sixth graders working out with seniors.

Coach Johnson started networking and establishing relationships to involve other people in the program. By the fall of last year they registered 84 boys in the first week.

“It was like a really small machine that was starting to work,” said Coach Johnson about the formation of the feeder program.

Coach Johnson said he observed from his own sons that organization and direction are key to success. “When kids are put in structured environments they seem to respond better,” he said.

“When our kids come to practice they know practice starts at six o’clock. At six o clock kids are already warming up and dribbling, and they’re ready for whatever is coming – that’s a beautiful thing,” he added.

The coaches said it is common to see a few of the Pride parents come out for practices. Tamala Reed, the mother of seventh-grader Nojel Eastern who plays on the eighth grade level, said the feeder program is an excellent start for kids in the community.

“This is the best experience my son has ever had. There is structure and a quality coaching staff that will give my son the upper hand when he goes to high school. I love it” said Ms. Reed.

Coach Patrick said there are important skills for the boys to learn both on and off the court.

“There are different influences that can take away the focus from work and work ethics. These kids have to understand that anything they want in their life they have to work hard and be respectful,” said Coach Patrick.

Eighth grader Saveion Shadd said he started playing basketball because his grandfather, father, uncle and cousin all play the sport.

Saveion said his favorite part about the feeder program is, “going to practice and playing hard. If I want to achieve my goals I have to work hard.”

On Feb. 5 Pride won five out of six games against ETHS’ biggest rivalry, New Trier. The eighth grade blue team record stands at 18-1.

“Basketball changed my life,” said Coach Patrick.

“I say that because the way I grew up, I needed an escape and basketball became my sanctuary. When I stopped playing 26 months ago, I lost my first love but watching and helping these kids play really helps fulfill that,” he added.