Despite winning the Central Suburban League South division championship and posting a 24-8 won-loss record overall last winter, Evanston girls basketball coach Brittanny Johnson never knew from one week to the next just what her starting lineup would look like because of injuries.
Nothing’s changed in the Summer of 2019.
The Wildkits completed the month of June with an overall record of 14-2 with appearances in team events at Loyola University, DePaul University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Loyola Academy, even though not every returning varsity player was available for every game .
Now the Kit players will focus on their AAU seasons for the month of July and Johnson said she’s confident that a team with Final Four potential is headed in the right direction.
The Wildkits only mustered a 1-1 record on their final weekend of team play, beating Loyola and losing to Chicago Taft, with potential starters Kayla Henning, Jayla Turchin, Ariel Logan and Lola Lesmond all absent for various reasons, including injuries and illness.
Evanston’s only other summer loss came against Marist and the Kits counted a seven-point triumph over national AAU power Michigan Crossover over at DePaul among their signature wins in June. They also whipped an elite team from Indiana, Lawrence North.
“We should be a Final Four team this year,” said Johnson, “but we thought last year would be our year until the injuries hit us. And we didn’t play a single game this summer with every person there, so it’s difficult for me to gauge just how good we are. With the talent we have, making the Final Four is possible, but there are just so many things that can stop you from being successful.
“When I was at Fenwick we had the best talent in the state and we didn’t win a state championship. Most of the seniors we have on the varsity and this is their third year, so they know what the expectations are. I love our leadership and I love how hard they’re working. We have so many good kids — four potential Division I players — and I know they’ll all be great. But we need the supporting cast to come through, too. We still need to fill in a few gaps to find out just how good we can be.”
Center Ambrea Gentle and shooting guard Delaney Brooks missed multiple weeks with injuries last year, but that didn’t prevent Johnson from molding a team that won of 9 of its last 10 games before bowing to eventual Class 4A state champion Maine West in overtime. No other team came that close (55-50) to the champs.
Gentle, a 6-foot-2 senior-to-be, came back to average 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds after her stint on the disabled list and Turchin (13.2 points per game), Tyler Mayne (9.3 points, led team in assists and steals) and Henning (6.8 ppg) will form the core as returning regulars.
Mayne has already made her college commitment, to Saint Louis University, after filling up the stat sheet every game as an underrated junior. Henning is attracting notice from several Ivy League schools, Gentle’s recruitment finds her on the radar of some Mid-American Conference schools, and the versatile Turchin has only started to tap into some awesome potential to play at the next level, wherever she lands.
Add Logan, a potential stopper on defense, and another 6-footer in Kaylen Hall, and junior guard Rashele Olatunbosun and there will be veterans on the floor every minute for the Wildkits no matter what the match-ups are.
Evanston also received a boost with the addition of 5-10 Dayjah Chmielewski, a transfer from a highly-regarded Trinity program in River Forest.
“To me as a coach, the summer is about them getting better as individuals and I don’t really care about our won-loss record,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a waste of time if they don’t focus on skill work. We try to identify things each kid can get better at and have them work on that — and I know they got better this summer.
“I’ve tried to be more patient with them from my perspective and I think I’m giving them a lot more freedom now. I don’t even say much at our practices, and they’ve shown the leadership you’d expect with so many veteran players. It’s a good feeling and I know we’re headed in the right direction.
“Jayla Turchin’s had a really, really good summer. Z (Olantunbosun) has played hard and she understands what the expectations are now with a year of varsity play under her belt. Our depth is really great again this year.”
Henning appears to be completely recovered from the knee surgery that slowed her progress starting last summer — “she’s back to her old self, her speed and her quickness are back” according to the head coach — and Hall has improved to the point where Johnson has sometimes taken a “twin towers” approach with Gentle and Hall on the floor at the same time.
“Kaylen transferred here as a sophomore (from Mather) and she was in more of a reserve role before Ambrea got hurt last year,” Johnson noted. “Now she’s a legitimate threat in her own right, and she can give us a different dimension and give us some things that Ambrea can’t.”
Chmielewski missed her entire junior season at Trinity due to a knee injury, but started for the Blazers as a sophomore and her hustle and energy were evident in Friday’s last two games of the summer schedule.
She grabbed a combined 11 rebounds in running clock games against Loyola (31-23 win) and Taft (32-28 defeat) despite competing with a brace on her left leg. She also netted 8 points.
“Dayjah is a tough kid and she’s coming in here from a great program. I really like the toughness she adds for us,” Johnson praised. “I think she’ll help us. Kudos to her from coming in here to a program with so many players returning. She’s a confident kid, and she’s moving pretty well right now. She’s already played in a lot of big games and her toughness will definitely help us.”