Fans of the Evanston basketball team might wonder just what direction the program is headed in after five seniors transferred in over the summer.
They aren’t the first players ever to move into Evanston and there’s no “transfer portal” in effect. Veteran head coach Mike Ellis insists he has never recruited a player to come to ETHS and never will.
Maybe it would just be easier for potential critics to think of the upcoming season as a reunion celebration for the Class of 2019 from, of all places, Wilmette Junior High. Hunter Duncan, Ephraim Chase and Colin McDonald, who played together at WJHS in seventh and eighth grade, are three of the newcomers who took different paths to Beardsley Gym.
Duncan (St. Viator), Chase (Chicago Sullivan) and McDonald (Loyola Academy) will be joined by Josh Thomas (Stevenson) on a roster that only features one returning starter from last year’s 21-10 squad, Prince Adams. Another transfer, 6-foot-7 Nic Raic, is making the move from Libertyville but might be sidelined by a bad knee for the first part of the season.
Duncan, who is suiting up at his third school in four years, figures to handle the point guard duties for the new-look Wildkits, who open their season at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Libertyville at the 45th annual St. Viator Thanksgiving Tournament. Evanston is the defending champion at the round-robin event that also includes Antioch, Prospect and the host team.
Player movement has become more commonplace each year at the high school level, as families and players seek better opportunities for themselves. The Wilmette Junior High trio, however, reached the decision to come and play for the Orange and Blue pretty much independent of each other.
“We didn’t intend to play together,” said Duncan, who played his first two years at La Lumiere Prep in Indiana before switching to St. Viator. “But the best options we all had turned out to be moving in here.
“I told Ephraim [after last season] that I was moving here, and he told me that his dad was thinking about moving to Evanston too. And over the summer Colin told me that he was going to move with his mother and he asked me how it was here. I told him it was good and that he should give it a try.
“In eighth grade our whole plan was to go to New Trier as players. But my parents didn’t like New Trier because of the way my older siblings [brother and sister] were treated there.”
“My parents didn’t want me to go to New Trier either,” said Chase. “This is just a better opportunity here. It’s the closest thing to a college program because the program is at such a high level. That’s the biggest advantage for me.”
Playing time is still up in the air but everyone involved says that team chemistry won’t blow up or be an issue because the Wilmette products, at least, are all on the same page as far as their familiarity with each other.
The newcomers showed that – in a brief sample size – with unselfish play while winning 10 of 13 games at summer shootouts. And Ellis expects that same unselfishness now that the games will count for something.
“To me chemistry is really not that important,” said the veteran coach. “They had 25 contact days in the summer and played together in the fall. They know each other. Chemistry is chemistry, and if you’re open, I’m going to throw you the ball.
“I haven’t seen any of these guys show up here to be heroes [in pursuit of headlines and Division I scholarships]. We don’t want anyone trying to prove he should be ‘the man’ here. That’s contrary to what we want in our program. They know that everyone has a role and that everyone will get an equal opportunity.
“I do think that Hunter and Josh [the 6-6 jumping jack, Thomas] are two of our best players and it will be hard for anyone else to bump them out of their spots. I don’t see anyone doing that.”
The addition of those two players will definitely add athleticism that Wildkit fans haven’t seen in a couple of years.
“Josh Thomas is a playmaker at both ends of the floor,” said Ellis, “and he can make contributions for us on and off the ball. He has the athleticism to guard every position on the floor. He has great instincts, a high IQ for the game and he really enjoys it.
“Hunter can be a solid lead guard for us. He’s not a self-centered stat guy, all he cares about is winning. He has high energy, a real will to compete and he’ll make the gritty plays for you.”
The 6-5 Adams heads the list of returnees and is coming off a strong summer performance. He figures to improve significantly on his scoring (7.5 points per game) and rebounding (5.4) averages from a year ago. Adams played like a man possessed during the summer campaign and seemed to regard every rebound as his own. Now he’ll try to turn in a more consistent effort that could lead to a breakout season.
“Prince has been our best player in practice so far and it’s not even close. He moves like a guard and he rebounds like a center. He really has it all as far as his game goes,” Ellis explained. “If he can take care of the basketball better this year, and continue to stay aggressive and confident, I believe he’s going to have a big senior year.”
Among the other seniors challenging for playing time, only guards Jonah Ross (3.1 ppg) and Malachi Barrett (2.5 ppg) played significant minutes in reserve roles last year. Other seniors to watch are 6-6 Jonathan Maerklin, Addison Blough and Rey Catuy.
Morgan Brown, 6-5, flashed big-time potential at times for the sophomore team and heads a junior class that includes Antoine Thomas, Brandon Watson, Yan Nalls, Tyler Dennis, Adrian Martinez-Jones and Obsa Abaomer.
Two sophomores with great bloodlines will likely get seasoning on the lower levels before moving up to the varsity roster. They are 5-9 guard Ian Peters, the younger brother of all-time ETHS leading scorer Blake Peters, and 6-2 Theo Rocca, the son of Hall of Famer Mason Rocca.
The Wildkits are ranked in the top 20 in the Chicago area by more than one so-called expert and will, as usual, face a challenging schedule this winter. They’ll return to the Team Rose Shootout at Mount Carmel, where they’ll play Marian Catholic on Dec. 11, and will also participate at the Loras College Shootout in Iowa against Dubuque Hempstead on Jan. 7.
It’s also Evanston’s turn to host the annual “War On The Shore” tripleheader involving New Trier and Loyola. ETHS is matched up against Notre Dame, and Ellis expects to get Illinois High School Association approval to use a 35-second shot clock at that event on Jan. 28.
“Defense and rebounding will be our strengths this year,” Ellis added. “We have guys who enjoy the challenge of defending and rebounding. I think we’ll have a lot more opportunities to score on putbacks and more opportunities to get to the free throw line too.”