By the time most high school basketball teams achieve anything close to the team chemistry they’re seeking for this abbreviated season, the season will probably be over.
That’s a box Evanston’s already checked.
With a starting lineup returning mostly intact from a group that was just two wins short of another trip to the Class 4A Final Four before the coronavirus shut down the state tournament last spring, the Wildkits will rely on that chemistry and experience in a season that starts Saturday and will consist almost entirely of games against Central Suburban League opponents.
Evanston opens Saturday at Beardsley Gymnasium at 2 p.m. against Vernon Hills. The only non-conference foe on the slate is Loyola Academy, which will host the Kits on February 15th. The season concludes on March 13th and there will be no postseason play.
Coach Mike Ellis’ program has dominated the CSL South division and the Wildkits will be in the thick of the fight for the league title, along with a young Glenbrook South squad, again this year. ETHS has won or tied for the championship for 6 straight years, the best streak in the history of the program.
Evanston returns four starters in Blake Peters, Isaiah Holden, Elijah Bull and Daeshawn Hemphill after compiling a stellar 29-4 won-loss record last year, ending the season with a win over Glenbrook South in the sectional tournament semifinals.
How experienced are the Wildkits? All four team managers — Dylan Casey, Jack Hart , Jack McGaughy and Avi Schapira — are also back. The only notable loss was the decision by a potential Division I player, Jaylin Gibson, to transfer to a prep school in Texas because the season was in doubt in Illinois until just a week ago.
But Ellis’ teams have never relied on one player and that won’t change in 2021. The veteran coach, now entering his 11th season at the helm at ETHS, doesn’t let his teams look too far ahead when it comes to setting goals, either, an approach that should help over a short 5-week schedule.
For a team that has played in national tournaments and all over the state of Illinois, it shouldn’t be a difficult transition even with no Downstate trip on anyone’s horizon.
“There’s really not more focus on winning the conference or anything like that for us now,” Ellis said. “We’ve always had a day-to-day philosophy in the program. We don’t meet in the preseason and say let’s win this or that, let’s win State. We just worry about how we did today.
“We’re very fortunate to have the senior leadership and experience we have, under these circumstances. Right now they’re just getting off the couch (with only 7 days of practice preparation to date) but they’ve been pretty solid in practice. It definitely helps with the amount of seniors we have.”
The veteran coach, who guided ETHS to back-to-back Final Fours in 2018 and 2019 for the first time in program history, even gave his seniors some input on putting together a schedule. Most schools have opted to play almost strictly conference schedules, but some are trying to jam in as many games as possible until the March 13 end date imposed by the Illinois High School Association.
Players would obviously rather play games than practice. But when Ellis sat down with team leaders Peters, Holden and Bull, he gave them a choice.
“I asked do you want to schedule a bunch of games, which are more likely to transmit the virus, or do you want to keep it within the conference and be respectful of other teams in the conference?” Ellis noted. “I thought the fewer games you schedule, the better the odds of actually competing, but I was good either way.
“I just thought they deserved the right to choose. They decided they wanted to play just a conference schedule, and now in essence, that’s their state tournament.”
The 6-foot-1 Peters, a Princeton University recruit, will join former star Nojel Eastern as one of the few four-year starters in the long history of the program. With 1,263 career points to date, Peters is chasing both Eastern (1,345) and Juvon McGarry (1,479) on the school’s all-time scoring list. He already holds the single game, single season and career school records for 3-point baskets and was on track to possibly set an IHSA state record from 3-point range until the virus hit.
“He’ll definitely go down as the best ever shooter from this high school,” said Ellis. “He’s so consistent, his shot is so automatic, he doesn’t need 30 shots to score 30 points. If anything I’ve probably done a poor job as a coach of not getting him more shots in his career. He has that no-fear mentality out there and that’s a mentality that can inspire confidence in the other players, too.
“He’s had a lot of success within that team framework.”
Holden, like Peters an all-conference choice as a junior, blossomed over the second half of the season and seemed to rise to the occasion against ranked foes. Overall, he averaged 10.9 points per game and paced the Kits with 99 assists.
“I think Itchy really came on strong for us in the second half last year and now he’s leading us better than ever before,” said the coach. “Like all the seniors, he has a sense of urgency about him now. When you’ve been through what they’ve been through over the past 11 months, I don’t think you take anything for granted. You don’t take a practice, you don’t take a single drill for granted.”
Bull and Hemphill are back to provide key 3-point shots, rebounding and the kind of defense that Ellis wants all of his teams to hang their hats on. And the loss of the 6-4 Gibson won’t necessarily mean that ETHS will have all guards on the floor as in many cases the past two years.
6-7 Ola Ajiboye, a senior transfer from Von Steuben, could emerge as an impact player once he gets comfortable in a new system, and post players Jack Tully (6-8), Logan Talmage (6-7) and sophomore Prince Adams (6-5) will also be heard from.
“I think the more up tempo we are, the more we play to our strengths. If we play the bigs, do they know their roles? Will they slow us down? They will have opportunities, because balance-wise I’d love to have 4 guards around 1 big,” Ellis said. “Having size is still a plus in our sport. All of the teams in the state finals every year have size — we were an anomaly the last couple of years.
“There are a lot of things in the game Ola is still learning, but he’s talented and he’s athletic. He has good hands, good footwork and I think he can impact the game for us at both ends of the floor.”
Junior guard Rashawn Bost has been the most impressive practice player to date and will challenge for playing time. Others to watch are juniors Jamon Brooks, Isaiah Moore, Avery Allen, Aidan Maher and Emery Jones, plus seniors Ashton Laude, Jake Vasilias, Ethan Kye and Mac Brewer.
For health and safety reasons, attendance at all contests will be limited to just 50 spectators. But every home game is available via live stream broadcast on the National Federation of High Schools network. For further information, consult https://www.nfhsnetwor.com/schools/evanston-township-high-school-evanston-il.
“What happened last year still eats at all of us,” Ellis explained about losing the chance to win a state championship. “To have that opportunity to play 4 more games, and never to have those memories for the rest of your life, that eats at you.
“I’m extremely happy to have the opportunity to take the floor with this group one last time. We’re so grateful we can create more experiences and more memories together.”